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Social media has experienced an exponential rise in popularity over the last decade, but its effects on mental health are still under investigation. Some evidence suggests that social media helps people stay more connected, and social connection is a powerful buffer against stress and a boon to one’s mental health. However, there is also evidence to suggest that social media can do its share of harm.

In 2004, a Harvard undergraduate hacked into his university’s database of dormitory ID images to create a compilation of his classmates’ pictures. That Harvard undergraduate was Mark Zuckerberg, and from these rather inauspicious roots arose one of the most popular social networking tools ever created: Facebook. A recent Pew Research Center study found that nearly three-quarters of internet users engage with social networking sites like Facebook. And, according to Pew, this can be good news. People who use social networking sites tend to have more relationships, closer relationships, and more supportive relationships.  However, the picture of social media use is not completely rosy.

Facebook tends to make popular posts more prominent in a user’s news feed. As a result, posts with a high number of Likes or comments tend to rise to the top. Engagements, job changes, vacations; these positive and exciting events are the things we are most likely to see in our news feed or on a friend’s personal page. The end result is that we see a “highlight reel” of our friends’ lives, according to the authors of a recent study on Facebook and mental health.  While we are intimately aware of the daily trials and struggles of our own lives, our friends’ lives appear to be a string of successes punctuated infrequently by minor setbacks that are handled with grace and poise. In an environment like this, it is easy to slip into comparing ourselves with others. And although social media may be relatively new, comparing ourselves with others is not.

In 1954, social psychologist Leon Festinger popularized social-comparison theory,  which argues that we have an intrinsic desire to assess our progress by comparing ourselves to others. When we make what he calls “upward” comparisons, we measure ourselves against people to whom we feel inferior. Given the “highlight reel” nature of Facebook, it is almost impossible to avoid upward comparisons, and these upward comparisons can cause a person to experience dissatisfaction, desperation, and even depression. When all a person sees from his friends are their weddings, children, promotions, and their ability to deal with adversity without losing their composure, he may wonder where in life he went wrong.

The answer, of course, is that he may not have gone wrong. Theodore Roosevelt is often credited with saying, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” While depressive disorders are serious conditions that require treatment, the self-doubt that can come along with comparing one’s real life to others’ highlight reels can still be disheartening. So what is a person to do? Mai-Ly Steers, one of the authors of the study above, has a bit of advice: “…the antidote to comparison tends to be gratitude. If you’re grateful for things, you’re not really comparing yourself.”

Social media, and its effects on our lives, are here to stay, and while it may be difficult to avoid comparing yourself with others who seem to have it all together, perhaps it is best to start by counting your own blessings first.

Author Bio: J. Ryan Poling, MA, has experience working clinically with a wide range of populations and presenting concerns. He is a clinical psychology doctoral candidate and was Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Azusa Pacific University from 2012 to 2015 where he taught general psychology, social psychology, and psychopathology.

Founded over 30 years ago, Sierra Tucson is a leading provider of mental health and substance abuse care. Sierra Tucson’s treatment model integrates evidence-based medical and psychological care and is staffed around-the-clock with dedicated, compassionate physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses, and master’s-level clinicians. The campus is situated on 160 acres in the high desert north of Tucson, Arizona and offers stunning views of the Santa Catalina Mountains.

Resources

[1] Pew Research Center. (2015). Social networking fact sheet. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheets/social-networking-fact-sheet/.
[1] Steers, Mai-Ly N., Wickham, Robert E.,  and Acitelli, Linda K. (2014). Seeing Everyone Else’s Highlight Reels: How Facebook Usage is Linked to Depressive Symptoms. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology: Vol. 33, No. 8, pp. 701-731. doi: 10.1521/jscp.2014.33.8.701
[1] Festinger, Leon. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Retrieved from https://www.humanscience.org/docs/Festinger%20%281954%29%20A%20Theory%20of%20Social%20Comparison%20Processes.pdf
[1] Hamblin, James. (2015). The psychology of healthy Facebook use: No comparing to other lives. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/04/ways-to-use-facebook-without-feeling-depressed/389916/

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