In my previous post I wrote about social comparison and how it can affect happiness and utility quite directly. I then also mentioned that both forms of comparison come with their benefits: a sense of fulfilment when doing better than others, and a newfound motivation to reach those perceived to be above you. However, given that I have also been trained as a psychologist, I owe it to you and myself to be honest. Social comparison has drawbacks, and they can spiral out of control quite quickly. I would like to explain to you how and why.
Social comparison used to happen into one’s immediate environment. The people we see at work and the people that live in close proximity. Sometimes, the direct environment could also extent to people we see regularly at our local pub, our sports clubs or our (old) school mates. Most people came into touch with people rather similar to themselves. Sure, there were plenty of deviations in jobs, aspirations, past experiences, etc. But the direct environment very rarely had individuals in it that were radically different.
With everyone being connected and online, the number of people that have entered our immediate environment has exponentially expanded. Our social pool used for comparison went from a pond to an ocean. Myspace, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr, Pinterest and whatever social platform a person uses, gives a glimpse into their lives. People have made very successful careers being “influencers” on these platforms and have risen to celebrity status for it. We are exposed to these people 24/7.
I mentioned before that the utility of an individual is often derived from their possessions. Another way most people value themselves is via the qualities within themselves that are easiest to identify. These qualities very often are physical attractiveness, funniness, intelligence, athleticism, level of education etc.
Having established how these qualities make up your own individual value, you go online. Soon, you are bombarded with people that have so much more. Their lives seem to exist out of wealth, luxury, great clothes, vacations, parties, perfect bodies…. They are ideal. All that you have worked for and achieved pales in comparison to these people. How can you be like them?
If it is not the first time you have been on social media and you can look through its obvious glamour, you know exactly why you cannot be like “them.” They spend their whole day making one selfie. Their body is great because they are in the gym 24/7 and are on a diet that is so restrictive a normal person would not be able to cope. And it is very likely that the face or the body in the picture you get to see has been both edited by a program (Face Tune, Photoshop) and/or edited by a very skilled surgeon. The reason you cannot be like these people is because they aren’t even like these people. It’s a very well-crafted and glamourous illusion, but an illusion nonetheless.
But what happens if you can’t see through the glamour? What happens if you are unable to recognise that the reality you are being fed is not real at all? Especially young kids and teenagers, who have grown up with social media are often unable to distinguish between real and edited. They compare themselves to and strive to be something that can hardly be achieved. The link between social media and a decrease in mental well-being has received ample research attention and scientific corroboration. The constant comparing to an ideal, and the continuous failure of living up to it, are extremely damaging to the individual. The rise of social media has been linked to the increased occurrence of depression and anxiety (Primack et al, 2017), eating disorders (Derenne and Beresin, 2006) and self-harm and suicide (Luxton et al, 2012).
Now the ultimate question is: what can be done? Boycotting social media use is not an option sustainable for many. Limiting social media use is already quite the endeavour. I am fully aware of this. I admit to being a social media addict as well. What we can do is put restrictions on who and what we see. If its advertisements that bother you the most, you can install an adblocker. If its specific people on social media, unfollow them. Regulate what you can see. If there is a YouTuber you are subscribed to that makes a series of videos that just show off their wealth, unsubscribe. If you don’t want to unsubscribe because they do make other great videos, make sure you only watch those. Turn off the notifications for the other ones. To some extent, you are in charge of what you see. Use that power wisely.
However, I can understand if letting go is too difficult. In that case it is best to activate plan B: mood monitoring. It is important to monitor your own mood. Social comparison, especially upward social comparison effects our mood negatively, especially if we are already feeling down (Gibbons and Gerrard, 1989). It is important to not let yourself fall into this vicious cycle. If you are stressed because you feel you might be unable to make rent this month, do not look at rich people on YouTube. If you are on a diet and have been unable to shed the weight you wanted to this week, do not look at fitness gurus on Instagram.
Try to look at people who are or have been in the same position as you. Look at their struggle, whether their struggle is about finances, health (both physical and mental), social acceptance, or whatever. Learn from them, their progress and their mistakes. But mostly, just look at the reality.
If none of this works we activate the worst case scenario: start looking at those inspirational Tumblr quotes I made fun of before. Even if it just takes your mind’s eye away from harmful images on social media, they have served their purpose.
References Derenne, J. L., & Beresin, E. V. (2006). Body image, media, and eating disorders. Academic psychiatry, 30(3), 257-261.
Gibbons, F. X., & Gerrard, M. (1989). Effects of upward and downward social comparison on mood states. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 8(1), 14-31.
Luxton, D. D., June, J. D., & Fairall, J. M. (2012). Social media and suicide: a public health perspective. American journal of public health, 102(S2), S195-S200.
Primack, B. A., Shensa, A., Escobar-Viera, C. G., Barrett, E. L., Sidani, J. E., Colditz, J. B., & James, A. E. (2017). Use of multiple social media platforms and symptoms of depression and anxiety: A nationally-representative study among US young adults. Computers in human behavior, 69, 1-9.