Understanding Social Comparison on Social Media

Social media use across platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, etc.) has increased drastically in the last decade. Humans are intrinsically social creatures, so the opportunities for connection and sharing offered by social media have made it especially popular. A 2018 nationally representative study by the Pew Research Center found that 95% of teens surveyed have access to a smart phone and 45% say that they go on-line constantly. Interestingly, despite its popularity with youth, nearly half (45%) say it has no clear effect on quality of life, while 31% and 24% describe it as positive or negative, respectively.

Connecting with others and scrolling through posted content are two of the primary uses of social media. Passive scrolling (looking at content without interacting with others or with content) has been shown to have negative mental health effects. Active use (posting and interacting vs. passive/scrolling), however, can have positive mental health benefits, and can provide opportunities for social connection and feelings of belongingness.

While the desire to connect and belong is natural, powerful and often positive, the anonymity, easy accessibility, and connective opportunities social media offers attracts those of us who suffer with loneliness and anxiety, and who are prone to negative social comparison. When we come to social media hoping to meet core human needs for connection that aren’t being met in offline life or to feel better about ourselves, we risk coming away from social media feeling even more lonely or self-critical than we started out. This means it’s important to have a sense of why we’re going and what we’re hoping to find or feel while scrolling or interacting on social media.

Fortunately, now that social media has been around for awhile, researchers are starting to better understand when and how it helps mental health and connectedness, as well as when and how it hurts these areas of life. One of the primary discoveries is the role that social comparison plays in our social media experience. The tendency to compare ourselves to others is natural, but in this case, having the tendency to notice people on social media who we judge (subconsciously or even unconsciously) as being better than us in key ways, often has a negative mental and emotional health impact.

Why is social comparison on social media important?

As social media sites update, they become more interactive and more “addicting,” and the opportunity for social comparison increases. This also increases the negative outcomes of self comparison: depression, anxiety, poor self-esteem, poor body image, and disordered eating. Although perhaps unconnected, it is worth noting that concerning mental health trends (e.g. depression, anxiety, body image issues), in youth worsened during the same period of time that teen smartphone and social media use increased. Although establishing clear links between social media use and larger mental health trends is challenging for many reasons, it is quite clear that engaging in a lot of negative social comparison is one of several likely contributors to these trends.

This is because creating a false life on social media for the sake of likes/followers can make our shortcomings or struggles in real life seem all the more difficult and we lose sight of what’s real. Even brief exposure to social media can trigger social comparison, and self-evaluations were lower when people viewed profiles of healthy or successful people.

What are some ways social comparison can harm us?

Negative social comparison or the fear of missing out (FOMO), which is the idea that someone else is having a better time or is more successful than you (only from what you can see of their online lives), can impact our mental health in a variety of ways:

  • Increased depression: Feeling envy and down on ourselves because of what others post on social media is associated with worsening depression.
  • Decreased overall well-being: People who are heavy users of social media (upwards of 5 hours a day) have been shown to have a lower sense of self, suffer from depression and even have thoughts of suicide.
  • Poor body image: A crucial factor in self-esteem, especially in adolescent development, negative self-comparison is a common phenomenon for both men and women on social media. While the idealized standards for men and women’s bodies are different, both are vulnerable to poor body-image and low self-esteem. This is true online as well with the growing rise in cyberbullying.
  • Eating disorders: More time on social media is also associated with the desire to change one’s body through disordered eating habits. One pervasive manifestation is the diet tea craze and other restrictive “cleanses”, commonly promoted by influencers with idealized body types and moreover, body types that have often been distorted or edited for social media.

Are some platforms worse than others?

Social media platforms where you mostly interact with people you know (Facebook, Snapchat, etc.) as opposed to sites that show you popular posts from strangers combined with people you know, (Instagram, Twitter, etc.) may increase negative social comparison. This is because you’re comparing yourself to people that are more personally relevant to you and thus the impact of your overall assessment (they have way more fun or friends than I have, etc.) may feel more impactful.

However, in some cases, scrolling vs. posting can increase negative feelings, especially envy, which may worsen depression. And visible friend and like counts make negative social comparison easier because there’s “data” to show if you’re less or more popular than someone else. Of course this isn’t really true, but many teens take these numbers seriously and use them to factor into whether they’re liked.

Does social comparison affect some more than others?

While people of any age can be affected by social comparison on social media, adolescents (13 – 18) and young adults (19-24) are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects. The main reason for this is due to how social media affects the forming of our identity. Our identity is formed by creating one that’s unique and “stands out”, while also creating one that fits in with a social group and allows us to feel like we belong.

Social media plays to both parts. The profile we create is made up of the parts of our identity we like best and want to present to the world, while the feedback we get in terms of likes, friends, and interaction feeds our need for belonging and acceptance.

Gender and social media comparison

More research is needed to determine if females are truly more affected by social media than males, but currently we know that girls are more likely to have lower well-being due to social media usage. This could be for a number of reasons, but the targeting of beauty related ads, the growing popularity of “fitspiration”/ “thinspiration” accounts, and of course the mass adoption of filters that constantly present idealized and unrealistic images are a factor. Not to mention the prevalence of cyberbullying, especially among young girls. If you’re the victim of cyberbullying, or know someone who is, there are ways to cope.

How to tell if you’re socially comparing yourself to others

In all of these studies, the worst outcomes in terms of negative feelings were associated with more time spent on social media apps. So in order to minimize social comparison, the best thing and quickest thing you can do is to limit your time there. A few other things you can do are:

  • Be aware of your triggers: Notice which posts make you feel down on yourself and start the comparison trap. Consider unfollowing those people.
  • Remember it’s not real: Don’t compare someone’s outside to your inside. These posts are designed for attention, they aren’t real life.
  • Practice gratitude: Try to focus on what you do have in your life vs. what you don’t. It can be small, but acknowledging what you do have can go a long way in minimizing comparison.
  • Limit social media use: Try limiting your use over the day or week. When you do go on, know why you’re there and how long you intend to stay.
  • Focus on the positive: Try to follow people and view posts that inspire you, rather than those who leave you feeling negative about yourself or others.

How to help a friend who’s socially comparing

If you see a friend fixating on their likes or friend count, experiencing cyberbullying, or trying detoxes or other disordered eating habits to “look like” their favorite influencer, it’s important to speak up. By making sure they know how important your friendship is outside of social media, and the importance of their physical and emotional health, you let them know that their worth extends offline. You can also share what you’ve learned here and encourage them to structure their social media use in ways that support, rather than challenge, their mental health.

Next steps and getting the help and support you need

Social media by itself isn’t the cause of these issues. Low self-esteem, poor body image, and being vulnerable to mental illness often make people more likely to seek out validation and community through social media. As we said earlier, positive interactions and self-expression through social media are beneficial. However, predatory advertisements (e.g. “thinspiration” and detox programs), idealized lives from influencers, and cyberbullying are the main culprits within social media that lead to comparison and negative outcomes: increased depression, anxiety, disordered eating, suicidal thoughts, etc.

If you or someone you know just can’t kick your social media habits despite it making you feel worse, or your mental illness is persisting even without social media, the most important thing you can do is ask for help or get them help. Depression, anxiety, disordered eating, and suicidal thoughts should never go ignored. Reach out to a mental health provider, text “START” to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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