Social media has afforded us the ability to spend hours of our time looking at friends’ vacations, birthdays, weddings, and a variety of other momentous occasions. In effect we’re looking at peoples’ ‘highlight reels’. Sadly many people make the mistake of comparing their everyday lives to other’s highlights reels leading to jealousy, envy and even depression. But why do we feel the need to continually compare ourselves? Festinger’s social comparison theory suggests that there is a drive within individuals to gain accurate self-evaluations by evaluating their own opinions and abilities by comparing themselves to others. This initial framework was expanded upon by Willis, who introduced the concept of both upward and downward comparison. Upward social comparison is the tendency to compare oneself to those who are better off or superior which can lead to lower self-regard. Conversely, downward social comparison is a defensive tendency which entails comparing oneself to someone you consider to be worse off in order to elevate your self-regard. More often than not, people post positive content on social media to create the image that they are leading happy, successful lives. Our friends’ ‘highlight reels’ only offers a distorted, narrow view of what their lives are truly like. Therefore, it’s counterintuitive to use peoples’ social media projections of their lives as a benchmark for how to live our own lives or else we’ll continually feel as if we don’t measure up which will in turn lead to depressive symptoms.
In accordance with this trend and Festinger’s social comparison theory, a new study has linked Facebook usage with depressive symptoms, with the mediating factor being this “social comparison.” In this new study, the researchers asked people about their Facebook use, how likely they were to make social comparisons (e.g., ”I always pay a lot of attention to how I do things compared with how others do things”), and how often they experienced depressive symptoms. It turned out that people who used Facebook more were more likely to have depressive symptoms. Using social media as a tool for comparison is a dangerous game to play. Just look at what happens when you type “social media makes me” into Google.
Unsurprisingly, the study found that cutting down on time spent on social media can reduce this effect; however, the better alternative is to shift our attitude toward social media. From my own experience just this past Sunday, I saw a post from one of my friends about how he had written his first song on guitar. Having never even learned how to play a single instrument in addition to spending my entire Sunday in front of the TV watching football (Who Dat?), I felt pretty lousy and inadequate by comparison. The thing is, I’m certain that my friend has spent plenty of his Sundays doing the exact same thing. Furthermore, while meeting goals and creating long-lasting memories are important, the reality of the matter is that parts of life can be pretty unspectacular. Can you imagine if people represented what their actual lives were like during the average day? If everyone updated their social media profiles with statuses about the mundane things they do everyday? Social media would be a wildly different, far less interesting experience. We would see amazing pieces of content such as:
“Just finished vacuuming my room”
“Bought a new toothbrush at Rite Aid”
“Finished clipping my fingernails in record time!”
Obviously how we as users engage with the platform is the key driver to how it makes us feel. By using it as a tool to stay in touch with old friends and family, browsing Facebook can be a rich and rewarding experience. By using it to track others’ social and financial success and comparing ourselves, browsing Facebook can be a saddening and frustrating experience.