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Though social media has experienced an exponential rise in popularity, its effects on mental health are still under investigation. Some evidence suggests that social media helps people stay connected, and social connection is a powerful buffer against stress as well as a boon to one’s mental health. However, there is also evidence suggesting 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 student was Mark Zuckerberg, and from these rather inauspicious roots arose one of the most popular social networking tools ever created: Facebook. One study found that nearly three-quarters of internet users engage with social networking sites like Facebook. And, according to experts, 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.


The Danger of Making Comparisons


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 usually rise to the top. Engagements, job changes, and vacations are just some of the positive and exciting events 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 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’s 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 and other social networks, it’s almost impossible to avoid upward comparisons, and these comparisons can cause a person to experience dissatisfaction, desperation, and even depression. When all a person sees from his friends are weddings, children, promotions, and their ability to deal with adversity without losing their composure, he may wonder where in life he went wrong.


Embrace Gratitude


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 a popular study on the effects of social media, 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 impact on our lives, is here to stay. While it may be difficult to avoid comparing yourself with others who seem to be thriving, perhaps it’s best to start by counting your own blessings first.


Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in September 2015 and has been edited and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.