Most social media users can relate to the experience of scrolling through their newsfeed and seeing people who appear to be incredibly happy. Everyone seems to be going on exciting vacations, having fun with their many friends, and accomplishing great things. But what about the rest of us? We know that our own lives aren’t perfect, but on social media sites like Facebook or Instagram, other people’s lives appear to be. Indeed, research has shown that people who spend more time on Facebook believe that others are happier than themselves (Chou & Edge, 2012). My coauthors and I theorized that these results are due to upward social comparison—that is, comparing oneself to someone who appears to be better off.
Exposure to social media affect self-evaluations
We tested this hypothesis in two studies. In the first, we simply surveyed college student participants about their social media use, their tendencies to compare themselves to others, and their self-esteem. This study showed that people who use social media more frequently make more upward social comparisons on social media, and subsequently have lower self-esteem. In the second study, we designed Facebook profiles for our participants to view. The college student featured in the profile was portrayed as being either very fit and healthy or very unfit and unhealthy. Furthermore, we manipulated the number of “likes” and comments the posts received, such that some participants saw a profile with an active, support social network, while others saw a less active network. Results of the second study showed that even short-term exposure to social media can affect self-evaluations. In short, viewing the profiles of people who were very fit or had an active social network led our participants to feel poorly about themselves.
Given the amount of time people spend on social media, these results have important implications for psychological well-being. Using Facebook, Instagram, or other social media sites regularly may lead to lower self-esteem and poor self-evaluations. This seems to occur because social media users compare themselves to people who appear to be very attractive, successful, and popular. In another research project, we found that people who frequently compare themselves to others in daily life are more negatively affected by Facebook use than those who do not make as many social comparisons (Vogel, Rose, Okdie, Eckles, & Franz, 2015).
Social media can increase life satisfaction and social support
Using social media is not always negative, however. Some studies have found that social media use leads to positive outcomes, such as increased life satisfaction, perceived social support, and self-esteem (e.g., Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007; Gonzales & Hancock, 2011; Nabi, Prestin, & So, 2013). Based on research, here are a few tips for healthy social media use (from Vogel & Rose, 2016):
- Focus on friends, not acquaintances. Although your close friends may make their lives look perfect on social media, you know that their profile does not tell the full story. This knowledge can help minimize upward social comparison and mitigate the negative effects of social media use.
- View and update your own profile. You can take advantage of the positive nature of social media content by making yourself look good too! Sharing happy moments with your social network can be very rewarding, and having a flattering profile photo doesn’t hurt.
- Use social media in moderation. Social media is great for keeping in touch with people, but when it is overused, we often forget that other people’s lives are not as perfect as they appear.
In sum, it is important for social media users to remember that they are only seeing the “highlights” of other people’s lives. We know all the ups and downs of our own lives, and those of our close friends, but our acquaintances often appear to be perfect. This research suggests that spending too much time on social media leads users to compare themselves to unrealistic versions of other people, causing low self-esteem and poor self-evaluations.
Chou, H-T. G., & Edge, N. (2012). “They are happier and having better lives than I am”: The impact of using Facebook on perceptions of others’ lives. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15, 117-121.
Ellison, N. B., Steinfield, C., & Lampe, C. (2007). The benefits of Facebook “friends:” Social capital and college students’ use of online social network sites. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12, 1143-1168.
Gonzales, A. L., & Hancock, J. T. (2011). Mirror, mirror on my Facebook wall: Effects of exposure to Facebook on self-esteem. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 14, 79-83.
Nabi, R. L., Prestin, A., & So, J. (2013). Facebook friends with (health) benefits? Exploring social network site use and perceptions of social support, stress, and well-being. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 16, 721-727.
Vogel, E. A., 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.
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, 206-222.