How social media can crush your self-esteem


We all have a natural tendency to compare ourselves to others, intentionally or not, online or offline. Such comparisons help us assess our own accomplishments, skills, personalities, and emotions. This, in turn, influences the way we see ourselves.

But what impact do these comparisons have on our well-being? It depends on how much we compare.

Comparing ourselves on social media to people who are worse off than us makes us feel better. However, comparing ourselves to people who do better than us makes us feel inferior or inadequate. Which social media platform we choose also affects our morale, as do crisis situations like the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a doctoral student in psychology, I study incels – men who perceive rejection of women as the cause of their involuntary celibacy. I believe that the social comparison, which plays out as much in these marginalized groups as in the general population, affects our general well-being in the age of social media.

An optimal level of comparison

It is believed that the degree of social comparison that individuals make affects their degree of motivation. According to a study by researchers at the Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, there is an optimal level of perceived difference between oneself and others that maximizes the effects of social comparison.

When people compare themselves to others who seem to be better off, they feel inferior, dissatisfied, or inadequate.

Specifically, if we see ourselves as vastly superior to others, we will not be motivated to improve because we already feel in a good position. Yet, if we perceive ourselves as very inferior, we will not be motivated to improve because the goal seems too difficult to achieve.

In other words, researchers find that above or below the optimal level of perceived difference between oneself and the other, a person no longer makes an effort. By perceiving themselves as inferior, the individual will experience negative emotions, guilt, and a decrease in pride and self-esteem.

Unrealistic comparisons on social media

Social comparisons therefore have consequences both on our behavior and on our psychological well-being. However, comparing yourself to others at a restaurant dinner doesn’t necessarily have the same effect as comparing yourself to others on Facebook. It’s easier to invent an exciting existence or spruce up some aspect of things on a social media platform than in real life.

The advent of social media, which allows us to share content where we always look our best, has led many researchers to consider the possibility that it amplifies unrealistic comparisons.

Research shows that the more time people spend on Facebook and Instagram, the more they compare socially. This social comparison is linked, among other things, to lower self-esteem and greater social anxiety.

A drawing of a woman smiling on a social media post, but unhappy in real life.
Many people only share positive moments in their life on social media.

A study by researchers at the National University of Singapore explains these findings by the fact that people generally present positive information about themselves on social media. They can also improve their appearance by using filters, which makes it seem like there is a big difference between them and others.

In turn, researchers working on Facebook observed that the more people watched content where people shared positive aspects of their lives on the platform, the more likely they were to compare themselves to others.

COVID-19: Less negative social comparison

However, could the effect of this comparison in a particularly stressful context like the COVID-19 pandemic be different?

A study by researchers at Kore University of Enna, Italy, showed that before the lockdowns, high levels of online social comparison were associated with greater distress, loneliness and less life. satisfactory. But this was no longer the case during confinements.

One of the reasons for this would be that by comparing themselves to others during lockdown, people felt like they were sharing the same difficult experience. This reduced the negative impact of social comparisons. So, comparing yourself to others online during tough times can be a positive force in improving relationships and sharing feelings of fear and uncertainty.

Four female friends greeting each other during an online video call.
The shared difficult experiences of COVID-19 lockdowns have reduced the negative impacts of social comparisons.

A different effect depending on the social networks

There are distinctions to be made depending on which social media platform a person is using. Researchers at the University of Lorraine, France, believe that not all social media platforms should be confused.

For example, using Facebook and Instagram is associated with lower well-being, while Twitter is associated with more positive emotions and greater life satisfaction. One possible explanation: Facebook and Instagram are known to be places of positive self-presentation, unlike Twitter, where it’s more appropriate to share your true opinions and feelings.

Trying to get social support on social media during the COVID-19 pandemic can reactivate negative emotions instead of releasing them, depending on which social media platform a person is using.

Many things motivate us to compare ourselves socially. Whether we like it or not, social media exposes us to more of these motivations. Depending on the type of content shared, whether positive or negative, we tend to refer to it when we self-assess. Sharing content that makes us feel good about ourselves and gets praise from others is good, but you need to consider the effect of these posts on others.

Overall though, I think sharing your difficulties in words, pictures or videos can still have positive effects and provide psychological benefits.


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