The rise of social media resulted in us, as a global population, being more “connected” than we have ever been in the history of time. How does that affect us combined with our natural drive to compare ourselves to others? Did we lose the concept of connecting out of sight by comparing to others too much?
Social comparison is part of the formation of our identity. This process helps people, specifically in the adolescent phase, figure out where they stand in terms of beliefs, preferences, and attitudes. The process of social comparison serves a number of functions, such as evaluating yourself, regulating emotions and making decisions.
Upward vs downward comparison
The Social comparison theory was first proposed in 1954 by psychologist Leon Festinger. He described how social comparison occurs in two ways: upward or downward (comparison). Upward comparison takes place when someone compares himself with ‘superior’ others with positive characteristics, whereas downward comparison focuses more on ‘inferior’ others with negative characteristics. Both types of comparison can have both a positive and a negative influence on the self-image of an individual. However, an upward comparison often has a more negative effect than a downward comparison. This is known as the Social Comparison Theory.
Social comparison can inspire and motivate. Yet, there is a downside: It can be detrimental to self-esteem, self-image, and well-being. In addition, constant evaluation of oneself versus others can create judgmental, competitive feelings. Hence, one study found that people who make frequent social comparisons are more likely to experience envy, guilt, regret, and defensiveness.
Being more connected in a time when online visual identity is your first impression can put a certain pressure on users, but does social media actually magnify the negative impact of upwards social comparison to peers or celebrities?
Does Social Media Comparison affect anxiety and depression?
Research has demonstrated that the association between social media use (SMU) and depression and anxiety may be more indicative of personal experience than the volume of SMU. In other words, the suggestion is that how we use social media, not how much, is what poses a risk. For example, several studies found that users may develop addictive or problematic levels of SMU, which have been associated with increased anxiety and depression. These associations may be attributable to the increased likelihood of individuals who experience depression and anxiety also developing addictive behaviors. This suggests that anxiety and depression can influence problematic social media use.
Alternatively, individuals who feel more emotionally connected to social media and are looking for social acceptance/reassurance can be more vulnerable to negative social interactions and feedback, and may eventually be at higher risk for depression.
The impact of social media on self esteem
A University of Oxford publication in the scientific journal PNAS on a study following group of 12,000 young people between 10 and 15 years for 8 years. In questionnaires they answered how much time they spent on social media on a normal day and how happy they are in life. It appears that the effect of using social media on happiness is minimal. The effect is too small to connect a conclusion to it. Satisfaction in life is more than 99 percent determined by issues that are non related to social media, according to Professor Andrew Przybylski, who is involved in the research. He suggests that contact and communication with family, friends and classmates have a much greater impact on well-being.
The effect of social media use on body image
In a study published in 2016, researchers interviewed 881 female college students in the United States. Hence, they found that, the more time teens spent on social media, the more they compared their bodies with those of their friends. Social media use increases the intensity of body image comparisons. Consequently, they felt more negative about their bodies.
The feeling of lack and dissatisfaction that we feel when scrolling through our feed often results from comparing our true reality to our friends and followers idealized and curated realities. We are using the same scale to measure two entirely different realities.
How to stop comparing and start connecting
1. Become aware of, and avoid, your triggers.
Start noticing the situations that cause you to play the comparison game. Avoid comparison triggers if you can, especially if the activity or contact doesn’t add meaning or any real value to your life.
2. Remind yourself that other people’s “outsides” can’t be compared to your “insides”
This is such a helpful habit to cultivate. Unless you’re really close to someone, you can’t use their outward appearance to judge the reality of their life.
3. Be grateful for the good in your life, and resist any lies that shout “It’s not enough”
If you commit yourself to being deeply grateful for what’s good in your life, and remind yourself of it daily, you’ll be far less vulnerable to comparison. If someone or something triggers that ugly feeling of negative comparison, stop and remind yourself of what’s good in your life, right now.
4. Start connecting as motivation to improve what matters
Who do you admire? Find those who inspire you to live your best life, in the way that matters most. Spend your precious time on connecting and growing instead of negative comparing thoughts. If you expose yourself to content that makes you feel empowered and happy you can stop comparing and start connecting to others. Together we can bring the “social” back in social media, but we all have to start with ourselves. Ultimately, social comparisons aren’t indicative of what others have that you don’t, but rather what you already have but aren’t quite aware of yet.
- Meier, Adrian & Schäfer, Svenja. (2018). The Positive Side of Social Comparison on Social Network Sites: How Envy Can Drive Inspiration on Instagram. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. 21. 411-417. 10.1089/cyber.2017.0708.
- Shensa, A., Sidani, J. E., Dew, M. A., Escobar-Viera, C. G., & Primack, B. A. (2018). Social Media Use and Depression and Anxiety Symptoms: A Cluster Analysis. American journal of health behavior, 42(2), 116–128. doi:10.5993/AJHB.42.2.11
- Psychology Today