how social comparison on social media impacts mental-wellbeing

Actually, I’m in the fourth week of my social media detox, and so far I’ve been able to stay strong. Maybe I’ve watched one more video on YouTube than I needed to, or I’ve spent longer than necessary searching for recipes on Pinterest, but I’ve always persisted. No matter how boring it got, no matter how much I longed to just let my brain wander in the social media feed during uncomfortable situations. But today, I thought I’d log into my Instagram account for a moment (primarily because I felt alone and bored). Well, at least I soon realized, with the first post, how I fell into the trap of comparison. And how this constant social comparison on social media is not good for me at all. Then I closed the app and instead, I’m writing a blog post about social comparison on social media and how it impacts mental well-being. (of course I am also going to throw some scientific research in here as well).

Table of Contents

humans need humans

People need people. We always strive for interpersonal relationships, social interactions and community. Together we are stronger – this is not just a cheesy postcard slogan, but rooted in ancient survival concepts of humans. Without loving and nurturing contact with attachment figures, infants wither away (see also Rhesus monkey experiment). Not only because attachment figures fulfill the needs of the little ones and thereby create a feeling of security and comfort, but also because they learn from their caregivers and in this context form their first ideas about their own identity (see information block about Kaspar Hauser).

Relationships make us strong. They give us the opportunity to fit in, find a place in society, create identity, and provide or receive help. And social networks like Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and co. allow us to feel emotionally connected to others, even when there is physical distance. 

Experiment Rhesus Monkeys:

Harlow proposed the hypothesis that the attachment of young animals to their mothers was based on satisfying the hunger needs of the offspring. In the experiment, young Rhesus monkeys were isolated in a cage with a “mother surrogate” made of wire (and fabric) that held a bottle of food. The monkeys always went to the surrogate to drink and tried to maintain contact with it. Even during exploratory experiments, the animals always stayed close to the surrogate and fled to it when presented with frightening stimuli. However, the monkeys quickly exhibited abnormal behaviors such as movement disorders, compulsions, aggressiveness, disinterest, and inability to mate, among other things. These disturbances persisted throughout the animals’ lives.

Kaspar Hauser

A historical case that attracted great attention due to his social isolation. In 1828, he suddenly appeared in Nuremberg and could hardly speak or behave appropriately. It was assumed that he had grown up isolated and without human contact during his childhood. This extreme social isolation had obvious effects on his behavior. Kaspar Hauser showed a strongly delayed speech ability and had difficulties adapting to social norms and conventions. His experiences suggest that the lack of social interaction during the critical development phase has a significant impact on the development of skills such as communication, social behavior, and emotional regulation. Kaspar Hauser’s case remains a remarkable example of the importance of social interaction and human connections for the normal development of an individual.

the theory of social comparison

The theory of social comparison states that people tend to compare themselves with others in order to assess their abilities, opinions, and social positions. Festinger argued that social comparisons are used to obtain objective information and to check one’s own self-assessment. We want to belong, be accepted, keep up with others, and experience a sense of community.

Social comparison can take place in two ways: upward comparison and downward comparison. With upward comparison, a person compares themselves to others who are better in a certain trait or ability. This can lead to feeling motivated to improve or push oneself to meet the standards of the comparison group. However, constant upward comparison can also lead to lower self-esteem, self-doubt, social anxiety, and depression.

On the other hand, with downward comparison, a person compares themselves to others who perform worse in the trait being observed. This can lead to a positive self-esteem and a feeling of superiority.

The theory of social comparison has broad applications and can be applied in various fields, such as advertising, where people are encouraged to buy products to compare themselves with others and achieve a better sense of self-esteem through the purchase.

social comparison on social media and mental wellbeing
(SNS usage = Social Network Sites usage) this figure implies that the more time you spend on social media the more likely you are to engage in upward social comparison on social media. (Wang et al., 2017)

the impact of social comparison on social media on our mental-wellbeing

So far, science is divided on the actual impact of social media on our mental well-being. Some studies suggest that social media provides the opportunity to stay connected with friends and family, and receive social support, which can have a positive effect on our mental well-being. They can serve as a platform to maintain friendships, establish new relationships, and exchange information. Interestingly, scientific databases have not yet found studies on the influence of influencers (including mental health influencers) on the mental health of consumers. It may be possible to obtain a deeper understanding of mental health and illnesses through social media. Psychotherapists have emphasized the importance of paying attention to who creates the content and with what qualifications. Informational posts that are not scientifically sound can have unwanted effects, such as refusal to take medication, active participation in therapy sessions and treatment methods, etc.

On the other hand, negative effects of social media on our mental well-being are mainly found in relation to social upward comparisons in social media. Thus, individuals who are vulnerable to this type of social comparison often experience more negative effects of social media on their mental health such as fear of missing out, body image issues and dissatisfaction with your own life and sucess (Verduyn et al. 2020). If you feel identified with this behaviour, it’s not a big deal. Just acknowledge it without judgment. This realization is already pretty valuable, and you can work with it in the future.

Screenshot 2023 05 22 083045 how social comparison on social media impacts mental-wellbeing

how to avoid social comparison on social media

If you don’t want to be as drastic as I am with a social media hiatus, these approaches can help you gain a conscious and helpful approach to handling social comparison on social media:

1. Develop an awareness of your consumption: Be aware of the impact of social comparison on your mental well-being. Recognize that the content displayed on social media is often selective and idealized. (Social media is and remains a highlight reel)

2. Actively control your smartphone usage: Set clear limits on the time you spend on social media. Avoid excessive consumption and make sure it doesn’t become the main source of your social comparisons. For example, set a timer before opening the app.

3. Regularly review and revise your social media feeds. Remove or reduce contacts and accounts that can trigger negative comparisons or dissatisfaction. Instead, follow inspiring and positive content such as psychotherapists, psychologists, nutritionists, etc.

4. Cultivate and prioritize offline interactions: Invest time and energy in personal relationships outside of social media. Meet friends, spend time with family, and engage in activities that bring you joy and connect you with others.

5. Self-reflection and self-acceptance: Focus on your own goals and successes instead of constantly comparing yourself to others. Even if you can’t yet recognize your own worth, you’re worth seeking help in strengthening your self-esteem.

interesting studies about social comparison on social media

Verduyn, P., Gugushvili, N., Massar, K., Täht, K. & Kross, E. (2020). Social comparison on social networking sites. Cyberpsychology, 36, 32–37.

Vogel, E. R., Rose, J. P., Okdie, B. M., Eckles, K. & Franz, B. (2015). Who compares and despairs? The effect of social comparison orientation on social media use and its outcomes. Personality and Individual Differences, 86, 249–256.

Gomez, M., Klare, D. L., Ceballos, N. A., Dailey, S. L., Kaiser, S. & Howard, K. (2021). Do You Dare to Compare?: The Key Characteristics of Social Media Users Who Frequently Make Online Upward Social Comparisons. International Journal of Human – Computer Interaction, 38(10), 938–948.

Wang, J., Wang, H., Gaskin, J. & Hawk, S. T. (2017). The Mediating Roles of Upward Social Comparison and Self-esteem and the Moderating Role of Social Comparison Orientation in the Association between Social Networking Site Usage and Subjective Well-Being. Frontiers in Psychology, 8.

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