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Visions Journal

Comparison is the Thief of Joy*— for Some of Us

How social media “influences” our emotional landscape

Carly A. Parsons, MA

Reprinted from the Growing Up In a Digital World issue of Visions Journal, 2023, 18 (1), pp. 23-24

Portrait photo of author Carly A. Parsons

For many of us, it’s hard to imagine going through our days without access to Google, email or our various social media accounts: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and the like. According to Statista, about 89% of the Canadian population uses at least one social media platform.¹ These platforms are hubs of social connection where we keep in touch with others, receive invitations to social events, remember birthdays and more. They’re also where we go for entertainment, information and self-expression.

We tend to be pretty careful about what we present about ourselves on our social accounts—and exactly how we present it. For example, you’re more likely to post about a recent achievement or milestone, such as a job promotion, than the setbacks and obstacles that came before it. You’re also more likely to post an Instagram Story of your delicious brunch than about the 45 minutes you spent waiting for your table. You may have heard the term “highlight reels,” which is used to describe the curated content people post, or the warning not to compare these with the behind-the-scenes of your life. This is easier said than done, and we sometimes finish our scrolling sessions with the feeling that we don’t measure up.

Scroll at your own risk

Of the ways we can spend time on social media, scrolling might be particularly harmful to our mental health. Researchers often divide social media behaviours into active behaviours (e.g., sending a direct message, commenting on a friend’s photo) and passive behaviours (e.g., browsing someone’s profile or the main feed). Several studies have found a link between passive social media use and negative emotional outcomes, including higher stress, feelings of loneliness and depression, and decreased life satisfaction.² What’s more, these studies have typically found that social comparison underlies these effects.³

Because of the tendency to share only the highlights of our lives, browsing others’ posts can lead to many upward social comparisons, where we see others as better than ourselves in some way. There is some evidence that even a single browsing session can lower our mood and self-esteem due to upward social comparisons. In a study by my research team, some university students reported declines in their self-perceptions, seeing themselves as more inferior while browsing the profiles of local Instagram influencers. These worsened perceptions led to lower mood and self-esteem by the end of browsing.⁴

Such outcomes are always a risk when we go online, but might be especially likely when we browse the profiles of influencers or celebrities, whose lives and appearances seem ideal and unattainable. Still, since many of us try to present our ideal selves online (e.g., with filters and editing apps), even our friends’ profiles might make us feel this way. Social media use is also negatively related to body image, particularly on visual platforms like Instagram.⁵ The idealized, edited images on these platforms are linked to body dissatisfaction, and this is true regardless of gender.⁶

Know yourself before you network

In other cases, our individual differences do impact how vulnerable we are to the effects of browsing. For example, if I’m a perfectionist who holds myself to a very high standard, I’m likely to feel more dissatisfied with my body when browsing other people’s photos.⁷ The same would be true if I have a high social comparison orientation.⁶ Having a high social comparison orientation means you compare yourself to others more often (e.g., your physical appearance, your income, your social popularity) and that you are more affected by the comparisons you make.  

Your social comparison orientation is related to other characteristics, like your level of depression or social anxiety. Socially anxious people make more upward social comparisons and are more sensitive to the effects of these comparisons.⁸ In our study, students with more social anxiety felt more inferior and had greater decreases in mood and self-esteem while browsing influencer profiles.⁴ Their worsened self-esteem included worsened feelings about their physical appearance.

There are other factors that impact how we’re each affected by social media. As some researchers have pointed out,3,9 the effects of browsing are inconsistent and depend on factors including gender, culture and the type of content we browse. Some people might even feel better after they go online, as upward social comparison can also lead to positive feelings including inspiration, motivation and optimism. Case in point: in our study, university students with low levels of social anxiety experienced more positive self-perceptions while browsing influencer profiles.⁴

And while its effects also differ from person to person, active social media use is linked to positive psychological outcomes, like less loneliness and more life satisfaction.² The best kind of active social media use is interactive, involving communication with others. In other words, social media can boost your well-being, especially if you use it as its name suggests: to be social.

So to get the most out of your accounts, use them to foster social connections: create that birthday event on Facebook; message your new LinkedIn connection to set up a lunch meeting; and reply to your cousin’s Instagram story to let them know it brought a smile to your face. Even better, interact in person! In a study that took place over a 10-day period, researchers found that social media use—especially social comparison—worsened mood, while in-person social interactions had the opposite effect.10 But for those moments when all you feel like doing is scrolling, consider setting a time limit. And most importantly, remind yourself that the highlight reel you see is just a snapshot of a fuller, richer, more complex story.

*Expression alternately attributed to former US President Theodore Roosevelt and Dr. Ray Cummings.

About the author

Carly lives in Vancouver, where she is completing her PhD in clinical psychology at UBC. Her research examines the emotional impacts of online behaviours like browsing, especially for people who struggle with anxiety. Outside of graduate school, Carly enjoys dancing, reality TV and exploring Vancouver’s food scene

Footnotes:
  1. Dixon, S. (2022, July 13). Number of social network users in Canada from 2018 to 2027 (in millions). Statista. statista.com/statistics/260710/number-of-social-network-users-in-canada
  2. Verduyn, P., Ybarra, O., Résibois, M., Jonides, J., & Kross, E. (2017). Do social network sites enhance or undermine subjective well-being? A critical review. Social Issues and Policy Review, 11(1), 274–302. doi.org/10.1111/sipr.12033
  3. Valkenburg, P. M. (2022). Social media use and well-being: What we know and what we need to know. Current Opinion in Psychology, 45, 101294. doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2021.12.006
  4. Parsons, C. A., Alden, L. E. & Biesanz, J. C. (2021). Influencing emotion: Social anxiety and comparisons on Instagram. Emotion, 21(7), 1427–1437. doi.org/10.1037/emo0001044
  5. Vandenbosch, L., Fardouly, J. & Tiggemann, M. (2022). Social media and body image: Recent trends and future directions. Current Opinion in Psychology, 45, 101289. doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2021.12.002
  6. Sumter, S. R., Cingel, D., & Hollander, L. (2022). Navigating a muscular and sexualized Instagram feed: An experimental study examining how Instagram affects both heterosexual and nonheterosexual men’s body image. Psychology of Popular Media, 11(2), 125-138. doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000355
  7. Etherson, M. E., Curran, T., Smith, M. M., Sherry, S. B. & Hill, A. P. (2022). Perfectionism as a vulnerability following appearance-focused social comparison: A multi-wave study with female adolescents. Personality and Individual Differences, 186(B), 111355. doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2021.111355
  8. Antony, M. M., Rowa, K., Liss, A., Swallow, S. R. & Swinson, R. P. (2005). Social comparison processes in social phobia. Behavior Therapy, 36(1), 65–75. doi.org/10.1016/S0005-7894(05)80055-3
  9. Meier, A. & Johnson, B. K. (2022). Social comparison and envy on social media: A critical review. Current Opinion in Psychology, 45, 101302. doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2022.101302
  10. Wirtz, D., Tucker, A., Briggs, C., & Schoemann, A. M. (2021). 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, 1673-1691. doi.org/10.1007/s10902-020-00291-z

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