Have you ever looked at your social media friends and felt like you are ‘lagging behind’ in life and they are ‘living their best life’? Read on. Social media use across platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, etc.) has increased significantly in the last decade. Because we are naturally social creatures, the opportunities for connection and sharing offered by social media have made it especially popular. A 2018 nationally representative study found that 95% of teens surveyed have access to a smart phone and 45% say that they go on-line constantly. Fascinatingly, despite its popularity with youth, nearly half (45%) say it has no clear effect on quality of life, while 31% and 24% describe it as positive or negative, respectively.
Creating a connection with others and scrolling through posted content are two of the primary activities of most people on social media. Passive scrolling (where one looks at content without interacting with others or with content) has been shown to have negative mental health effects. Nonetheless, active use (posting and interacting vs. passive/scrolling), can have positive mental health benefits, and can provide opportunities for social connection and feelings of belongingness.
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The desire to connect and belong on social is completely natural, powerful and often positive. However, the anonymity, easy accessibility, and connective opportunities social media offers attracts those of us who suffer with loneliness and anxiety, and who are prone to negative social comparison. When someone comes to social media hoping to meet core human needs for connection that aren’t being met in offline life or to feel better about ourselves, they risk coming away from social media feeling even more lonely or self-critical than they started out. It is therefore important to have a sense of why we’re going and what we’re hoping to find or feel while scrolling or interacting on social media platforms.
It is very essential to understand when and how social media helps improve mental health and connectedness, as well as when and how it hurts these areas of life. One of the most negative effects of social media is negative social comparison. The tendency to compare ourselves to others is normal, but in this case, having the tendency to notice people on social media who we judge (subconsciously or even unconsciously) as being better than us in key ways, often has a negative mental and emotional health impact.
As social media platforms evolve and improve, they become more interactive and more “addictive,” and the opportunity for social comparison increases. Consequently, the negative outcomes of negative comparison: depression, anxiety, poor self-esteem, poor body image, and disordered eating increase. This is because creating a false life on social media for the sake of likes/followers often makes our weaknesses or struggles in real life seem all the more tough and we lose sight of what’s real.
Negative comparison and fear that other people are ‘living a better life’ has numerous negative effects on our mental health:
- Depression from often feeling envy and down on ourselves because of what others post on social media.
- Poor body image, because of self-comparison with ‘ideal beauty’ and ‘glamour’ for both men and women portrayed on social media. While the idealized standards for men and women’s bodies are different, both are vulnerable to poor body-image and low self-esteem. This is made even worse by the immense increase of cyber bullies.
- Eating disorders: Spending a lot of time on social media is associated with the desire to change one’s body through disordered eating habits. Sadly this is commonly promoted by influencers with idealized body types and moreover, body types that have often been distorted or edited for social media.
- Decreased overall well-being: People who are weighty users of social media (5 hours or more a day) have been shown to have a poor self-image, low self- confidence, suffer from depression and even have thoughts of suicide.
One thing that is very important to understand is that the ‘idealized’ social media life is often exaggerated, and unreal, and it is a great undoing to oneself to beat themselves up by comparing their real life to ‘edited’ and ‘filtered’ social media life. Social media is greatly valuable for learning, entertainment and socializing, but if it makes you feel worse than you did before you checked in because of self- criticism and negative social comparison, maybe it’s time to cut it off a bit and if necessary, seek psychological help.