Social comparison in the age of Social media

Social Comparison
Social Media is a Good Time

Facebook came out in 2004 and the world hasn’t been the same since. Completely changing the face of virtual interaction, social media has become an indispensable part of our daily lives. The most used social media platforms today are Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. While their initial purpose was to connect people with each other, it has evolved. Now, people use it to create content, share opinions, or give an update about their lives. Did you buy a new pair of shoes? Put an Instagram story about it! Loved that new Marvel movie? Write a tweet for it!

But every Party must end

Many surveys, research, and polls have concluded that social media has a lot to offer. But its negatives outweigh the positives. These are a few of the negative effects that social media leads to:

  1. Fear of missing out
  2. Inadequacy about yourself
  3. Isolation
  4. Depression and anxiety

A review aimed to establish a relationship between social media and depression. The researchers concluded that frequent social media users often indulge in comparison, which leads to overthinking as well as feelings of depression. Additionally, it created feelings of envy and jealousy. In this age where everyone wants to know everything about everyone, it isn’t surprising to know that levels of social comparison have also gone up.

This is especially true for youngsters. Comparing yourself with peers could supplement identity formation. Engaging with like-minded people on social media can help youngsters form opinions, beliefs, and attitudes.

But wait, where did Social Comparison come from?

Humans are social beings. We thrive, in part, because of our social ties. The sociobiological perspective (Bowlby, 1958) stresses the importance of group formation. A predisposition to form groups increased the chances of survival of our ancestors. Through natural selection, this trait was passed on to later generations.

Because we live in a social world, social comparisons are omnipresent. To answer questions like “Who am I?”, we must consider others as role models, yardsticks, or parts of how we define ourselves. Festinger’s (1954) social comparison theory suggests that individuals compare themselves with similar others to get a better idea about their abilities and opinions. Before we can analyse whether our skills & abilities are good or not, we need to know how skilled & able other people are.

There are generally Three forms of Comparisons:
  1. Lateral: wherein we compare ourselves with people similar to us. This is used for gathering accurate knowledge about our skills and abilities,
  2. Upward: wherein we compare ourselves with people better off than us to motivate ourselves, and
  3. Downward: wherein we compare ourselves with those worse off to flatter ourselves.

Which comparison we use depends on the situation. When we’re stressed or threatened, we engage in downward comparison to appease ourselves. However, downward comparisons don’t offer hope or scope for improvement. For this reason, we might simultaneously associate with those better off than us (Taylor and Lobel, 1989). While we can decide when we want to compare ourselves, we don’t have much power over how we end up feeling as a result. Research has shown that social comparison has two kinds of effects, depending on the social context:

  1. Assimilation effect: Upward comparison can result in feelings of motivation and inspiration. People often evaluate themselves more positively after comparing themselves with a paragon for some dimension. However, this effect is largely mediated by whether the model is psychologically close to us. When people think of themselves as related, the assimilation effect occurs (Brewer and Weber, 1994).
  2. Contrast effect: Even though the main idea behind Festinger’s theory was the assimilation effect, much of the research shows that contrast effects occur more often. This is when people start feeling better after engaging in downward comparison, and vice versa. For instance, women evaluate themselves more negatively after looking at attractive models (Levine et al., 2002). A study by White et al. (2006) concluded that people who frequently engage in comparison processes are more likely to have feelings of guilt, envy, and regret. A review also found that people engage in upward comparison more than downward comparison.

The contrast effect forms the backbone of the idea that comparing ourselves to people on social media can result in negative feelings about ourselves. One potential reason behind the contrast effect could be scarcity syndrome. When we’re constantly bombarded by other people’s joys and happiness, our brain goes into scarcity mode. We fall prey to subjective scarcity- a sense that we don’t have enough, even though we do.

The question now is if social media-based comparisons affect one’s mental health. Yes, they do. Since we spend more time while consuming content, we are constantly comparing ourselves to others. Both Instagram and Facebook offer the facility for creating posts. Other people share and like these posts. In a way, the number of likes is seen as a measure of popularity.

One might feel the need to get more and more likes on his/her content, causing them to spend more time on these applications. And hence, there are more opportunities for comparison. Moreover, the more likes a post has, the more it will be shown on everyone’s feed. We only ever display the most glamorous, most glorious parts of our lives on social media.

Consequently, we’re left with a “highlight reel” which consists of the best events of one’s social life. Because we’re unaware of the failures one has gone through or the hardships they’ve endured, we begin idealizing their lives. When we’re presented with unrealistic photos in the guise of real life, we fall down a spiral of inadequacy. In essence, we begin comparing our behind-the-scenes with other people’s highlight reels.

Years ago, Theodore Roosevelt claimed that “comparison is the thief of joy”. He was right. Nesi and Prinstein (2015) conducted a study linking comparison and feedback-seeking activities on social media to depressive symptoms. In line with this, Vogel et al. (2014) concluded that people who spent a lot of time on Facebook had poor levels of self-esteem. Yang (2016) discussed how high Instagram usage was significantly related to higher levels of loneliness.

There is no doubt that further research is needed to establish a causal relationship but one thing is clear: we must learn how to avoid falling into the comparison trap.

So How do I stop?

Since comparison is an innate human trait, we can’t completely avoid doing it. But if we understand the why and how behind this trait, we can manipulate its effects as per our own needs.
Remember. The grass is green where you water and fertilize it.
Dodging social comparison on social media: Let’s be real. We’ve all struggled with some aspect of our lives, and that’s all right. But we’ve also experienced the heart-breaking feeling of seeing someone doing better than us. Sadly, social media platforms provide many opportunities for us to feel that way. These comparisons we make are rather illogical, too. We could end up comparing every little aspect of our lives to a stranger! Regardless, our feelings end up overpowering our intellect.

i. Limit your time on social media: endless scrolling through Instagram or Facebook won’t do your mental health any good. Trust me. Start cutting down your time in chunks. Go down from 50 minutes to 40 minutes to 30 minutes, and so on.

ii. Redirect: There is so much more you can do with your time instead of binging on social media content. Maybe read that book you’ve had on your nightstand for a month. Try journaling. Make a doodle! Make a list of activities you can do and schedule them in your daily to-do list so that you’re held accountable.

iii. Digital declutter: Hey, remember that app you haven’t used in months? Delete it! That app you spend hours on, scrolling mindlessly? Delete it! Taking action against something that is harming you is a form of self-care.

iv. Be mindful of your social media activity: If someone’s profile is not adding anything positive to your life- remove them. Unfollow. Unfriend. Delete. These profiles are nothing but triggers for comparison and give you nothing but anxiety.

v. Understand the WHY of comparing: Why are you comparing yourself in the first place? By understanding why you’re thinking about something, you can make a plan to do something about it. Jealous of that guy with a 6-pack? Create a workout routine and follow it! Take steps in a positive direction and your mindset will do the same.

vi. It’s not real: That girl’s flawless skin without pores? Photoshopped. Remind yourself that these people are no more than human beings, with the very same flaws that you have. Nothing on the internet exists without a digital filter.

vii. Celebrate yourself: You don’t have to post every little thing on social media. “Pictures or you’re lying” isn’t a real thing. Celebrate your little wins and cherish those little moments. Life isn’t picture perfect and you don’t have to be either.

viii. See the bigger picture: Sure, that dancer’s physique is amazing and that choreography was on fire! But what she doesn’t show you is the blood, sweat, and tears she shed. She doesn’t tell you about the long hours and painful workout sessions she endured. Hard work and perseverance are the building blocks of every form of success, and you’re capable of doing it if you set your mind to it.

How to Stop Social Comparisons in Life?
  1. Be grateful: Instead of comparing, make a list of all the things you’re grateful for. Work on how you can improve your life. Many studies have linked the expression of gratitude with increased optimism, life satisfaction, and overall well-being.
  2. Be kind to your mind: Self-compassion is important. Be as kind to yourself as you are to a stranger online, or your favourite celebrity. Don’t be harsh on yourself for not meeting someone else’s idea of perfect.
  3. It’s not a competition: You’re not competing with that 23-year-old entrepreneur. You’re competing with your past self, your perfectionism, your procrastination. Your competition is you, and no one else. This also involves a downward comparison. In one study, people made themselves feel better by comparing their current self with a past self who was worse off (Ross and Wilson, 2003). So, run your race, at your pace.

These tips are not a testament to the fact that we can stop comparing ourselves altogether. Instead, we must be mindful of HOW and WHY we compare. As Festinger believed, upward comparison can induce feelings of motivation. But we must know whom to compare ourselves to. You’re better off comparing yourself to someone a little more skilled than you are, instead of a professional. Instead of being envious of someone’s growth, be proud of them, and inspire yourself to meet the same level of success. The way I see it social comparison is a rather useful tool to have. We should use downward comparison to see how far we’ve come, and upward to see where we need to reach.
In any case, you can always turn to the wise words of Steers: “The antidote to comparison tends to be gratitude. If you’re grateful for things, you’re not comparing yourself.”

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