Social Comparisons in Social Media: Why are Others Doing so Well?

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By: Gingin Chien

This blog has been reviewed by Rebekah Weinman and Nicholas Murray, edited by Rémi Thériault, and formatted and published by Nicholas Murray.

As social media users, we’ve probably all admired others’ lives as shown in social media, and wondered how a person can be productive while maintaining a work-life balance. What’s more, we may often argue with friends and family from time to time, and then wonder why our own relationships are not as perfect and loving as those we see on social media.

Yes — most of us experience social comparisons when we are using social media. We can make upward comparisons, in which we compare our own lives to more successful people and hope to be as happy as they are. We may also make downward comparisons, which remind us that we don’t want to sink to the level of those we dislike.

We all compare ourselves to others at some point, and for various reasons: To be inspired, to evaluate ourselves, to regulate our emotions, etc.¹ Before social media existed, social comparisons happened between ourselves and people around us, such as our colleagues, our friends, and our family members. It happens within in-person settings when we are interacting with others. Such comparisons are relatively more realistic, as we know what the person really thinks, and we can observe how they behave, so our comparisons are more accurate.

In contrast, social media users get to choose what information they want to reveal on social media and to choose who they want to be. Oftentimes, users choose to present only the successful and good things that happen in their lives, while choosing not to report any struggles or challenges they are going through. That being said, as viewers of their profile, we tend to make upward comparisons to other people because we only see the positive parts of their lives. Upward comparisons can sometimes inspire us, but more often it makes us feel inadequate, resulting in poorer self-evaluations.²

Several studies have shown that social comparisons negatively influence our self-esteem and well-being. Wirtz et al. (2020) followed participants for 10-days and assessed their use of social media and well-being. The results showed that as time spent on social media increased, participants’ well-being decreased, as social comparison was a strong predictor of well-being. Furthermore, studies done by Vogel et al. (2014) suggest that people engage in more upward social comparisons than downward social comparisons when using social media. As well, the extent of upward social comparison when using social media mediates the relationship between social media use and self-esteem.

My Experience with Social Comparisons in Social Media

As a frequent user of social media, I have also experienced lower self-esteem when I see others’ Instagram or LinkedIn posts. On Instagram, I always see people posting about the delicious food they’ve tried, fabulous places that they’ve been to, and relaxing weekends with their friends and family. I wonder: Why are they so pretty? Why are they always happy? Why does it seem that everyone’s lives are going so smoothly without any challenges? On LinkedIn, I question how people can be so productive, knowledgeable, and have so many endorsements.

Having these thoughts, I remember experiencing a hard time. I doubted myself, and thought that I was worthless and I could not do anything well. I did not think that I had enough friends, and thought my life was not as fun as others’ lives.

It was not until my friend’s comments that I noticed the reality. A friend of mine once asked me how I am coping with university life so well. I am still anxious about the sudden changes I have experienced since becoming a student, so I was surprised that someone thought my life seemed “smooth” and “enjoyable” when, compared to others, I thought my life was worse. I then took a look at my posts on social media and realized that just as others are beautifying their lives on social media, I also avoid posting the struggles in my life and only post when I am relaxing.

That is the power of social comparison. Social media can make us feel more connected and happy, but with too many unrealistic comparisons, we will potentially have lower self-esteem and even suffer from depression.³

Social media can make us feel more connected and happy, but with too many unrealistic comparisons, we will potentially have lower self-esteem and even suffer from depression.

Tips to use social media to avoid social comparisons

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Despite the negative impact on the self-esteem of social comparisons on social media, it can still be beneficial to us.⁴ In particular, studies have shown that browsing social media makes people feel less lonely when it is used properly and for people who have a lower tendency to compare. That being said, to ensure social media will increase your well being, here are some tips:

  1. Keep in mind that people choose how they want to present themselves. Think about how you use your social media. Do you constantly post about the recent fight between you and your partner? Do you post how late you stay up to meet the next deadline? Probably not that often. Most of us post in a similar fashion. We all know that our lives have their ups and downs, and challenges happen from time to time. With that in mind, you can admire people or role models, but just do not be overwhelmed if you are not as perfect as how they present themselves on social media.
  2. Turn off social media if necessary. When you are not in a good mood or you are facing significant challenges, you can choose to avoid social media. Take a break from knowing what others are up to, and instead focus on yourself. Since social comparison plays a key role in social media’s negative impact on users, if you find out that you are constantly comparing yourself to others, avoiding social media might be a great choice. Even comparing yourself to your real-life friends or family in a non-virtual setting is better, as you get to know more about them, not just what they choose to present.
  3. Everyone has their own journey. Whether it’s an online setting or in a non-virtual setting, you should not worry too much about not being able to be as talented as others. Everyone has their own life, journey, and challenges. Some start their journey sooner, while others take more time to explore or to struggle before accomplishing their goals.

Use social media to connect with friends, family, and the world. Use it to share cool stories, interesting moments of life, and choose whatever you want to present to others by yourself. At the same time, keep in mind that other users do so too and choose the way they present themselves to increase social desirability. Last but not least, social media should bring happiness, connectedness, and a welcoming community instead of a place of jealousy, unrealistic comparisons, and unrealistic photos.

Thanks for reading my blog. If you haven’t already, please consider getting your Canadian Positive Psychology Association membership to join our wonderful community and check out our Student Zone! Plus, if you liked this blog or if it has helped you in any way, please take a moment to like, share, or comment! If you have any questions about this blog or about the Student Ambassador Program, you can contact me via my personal email address: yuchun.chien@mail.utoronto.ca.

References

  1. Vogel, E. A., Rose, J. P., Roberts, L. R., & Eckles, K. (2014). Social comparison, social media, and self-esteem. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 3(4), 206–222. https://doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000047
  2. Wirtz, D., Tucker, A., Briggs, C., & Schoemann, A. M. (2020). How and Why Social Media Affect Subjective Well-Being: Multi-Site Use and Social Comparison as Predictors of Change Across Time. Journal of Happiness Studies, 22(4), 1673–1691. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-020-00291-z
  3. Chae, J. (2018). Reexamining the relationship between social media and happiness: The effects of various social media platforms on reconceptualized happiness. Telematics and Informatics, 35(6), 1656–1664. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tele.2018.04.011
  4. Yang, C. C. (2016). Instagram Use, Loneliness, and Social Comparison Orientation: Interact and Browse on Social Media, But Don’t Compare. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 19(12), 703–708. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2016.0201

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