TikTok’s ‘Aging’ Filters Bring Us Face-to-Face with Mortality

AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File
The icon for the video sharing TikTok app is seen on a smartphone.

Our future selves used to be a mystery. Now thanks to social media filters, we can stare them right in the face.

People took to TikTok this week to share themselves “aging” in real time using a filter called “time travel.” Set to a wistful Elvis Presley song, the effect shows the user’s face slowly getting older, complete with wrinkles and sun spots. The effect was released by an independent creator in October, and the app says it’s been shared 1.4 million times.

Camera filters that artificially age you have been around for years – Snapchat and FaceApp both had popular versions in 2019. But advancements in AI imaging are making the results more realistic, perhaps by using machine learning trained on young and old images of real faces. Board certified dermatologist Aleksandra Brown said the TikTok time travel filter is the most accurate she’s seen in guessing how a given face would age, including details like skin texture and muscle positions.

As we get older, our facial skin thins, fat dissolves and gravity pulls everything downward. Not everyone is pleased about this.

“I hated it,” Xavier Wilson, a 17-year-old in Los Angeles, said of the filter. “I looked all worn out.”

Wilson isn’t alone. During the summer, users shared TikTok’s “aged” filter along with the popular “I need to buy a gun” sound clip from the TV show “Why Women Kill.” (The joke being that the sight of their own aged faces is driving them to violence.)

Brown said she’s seen no less than four people cry after using the filter, including herself. One friend didn’t like watching the decades fly past, according to Brown. She felt overwhelmed watching herself age 50 years in 15 seconds – could life really go by that fast? Later, Brown and her co-workers cried together after Brown showed the aging effect on her own young daughter. She won’t live to see her daughter get that old, she pointed out.

For other people, the time travel filter brought up unexpected positive emotions. Actor Jonathan Bennett shared a video saying his own filtered face evoked happy memories of his late father.

Nicole Loehle, a 24-year-old in New Jersey, tested the effect with her boyfriend. It gave her a new perspective, she said – she could imagine the relationship lasting into their old age.

“It’s showing what we might look like, but obviously it’s not showing all the milestones we could hit by those different ages,” she said.

Users unhappy with their future faces wouldn’t have to look far on TikTok for purported fixes. “Anti-aging” content and creators have exploded on the app, with cosmetic companies targeting ever-younger consumers. Some critics have pushed back against child influencers promoting makeup and skin care. And trendy concepts like “glass skin” (a glowing, poreless complexion) and “baby Botox” (anti-wrinkle injections for people who don’t have wrinkles yet) reach new audiences on TikTok.

Loehle struggles with acne, she said, so she’s familiar with the way a TikTok video can send her itching to buy new skin care. She’s ordered skin products promoted by influencers just to find they don’t work for her – or that the influencer was using a face-smoothing filter in the first place. Aging filters could lead to more of the same if she’s not mindful, she said.

There’s no correct way to age, and many people find skin care and cosmetic procedures empowering or relaxing. But it’s important to remember that no one can freeze time or undo its effects, Brown said.

Glimpsing our older faces could be a scary reminder of our own mortality. Or, it could be an exercise in gratitude for our elders and compassion for ourselves.

“I keep trying to reframe aging as a gift,” Loehle said. “Some people don’t get to age, unfortunately.”