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Social comparison

Social comparison is the process of evaluating oneself in relation to others, often based on appearance, achievements, abilities, or preferences. It can have positive or negative effects on one’s self-esteem, motivation, and wellbeing, depending on the type, direction, and frequency of the comparison (Festinger, 1954; Taylor & Lobel, 1989).

Social media platforms provide abundant opportunities for social comparison, as users can easily access and view information about other people’s lives, such as their photos, videos, opinions, interests, and accomplishments. However, social media can also distort the reality and present a selective or idealized version of others, which can lead to unrealistic or unfair comparisons (Chou & Edge, 2012).

Children and young adults are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of social comparison on social media, as they are still developing their sense of identity and self-worth, and are more influenced by peer pressure and social norms (Steinberg & Morris, 2001). Moreover, children and young adults are more likely to use social media frequently and intensively, which can increase their exposure to comparison cues and trigger feelings of envy, inadequacy, or dissatisfaction (Valkenburg et al., 2017).

What the studies say

Several studies have found that social comparison on social media is associated with lower levels of mental health and wellbeing among children and young adults. For example, a survey of over 500 young people in England found that those who reported higher levels of social comparison on social media had higher rates of probable mental disorders (18.0% vs. 12.1%) and lower levels of life satisfaction (6.4 vs. 7.8) than those who reported lower levels of social comparison (Newlove-Delgado et al., 2022).

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Similarly, a study of over 1,000 adolescents in the Netherlands found that upward social comparison (comparing oneself to someone who is perceived as better) on social media was related to lower self-esteem and higher depressive symptoms, while downward social comparison (comparing oneself to someone who is perceived as worse) was related to higher self-esteem and lower depressive symptoms (Valkenburg et al., 2017).

Exacerbating factors

The negative impact of social comparison on social media can be exacerbated by other factors, such as the fear of missing out (FOMO), which is the worry that someone else is having a better time or is more successful than oneself. FOMO can lead to increased use of social media, which in turn can increase the exposure to comparison cues and the likelihood of making unfavourable comparisons (Przybylski et al., 2013).

Additionally, the socio-economic status of children and young adults can influence their mental health and wellbeing outcomes, as those from lower-income households may face more challenges and stressors in their lives, such as food insecurity, housing instability, or lack of access to quality education or health care. These factors can also affect their ability to cope with social comparison on social media and to seek or receive appropriate support when needed (Gutman et al., 2015; Mind, 2021).

Coping with social comparison

One way to cope with social comparison on social media is to be aware of one’s triggers and emotions when using these platforms. For instance, one can notice which posts make one feel down or envious and consider unfollowing those accounts or limiting one’s exposure to them. One can also remind oneself that these posts are not representative of the whole reality and that everyone has their own strengths and challenges that are not visible online.

Another way to cope with social comparison on social media is to focus on one’s own goals and achievements rather than comparing them to others’. For instance, one can celebrate one’s own progress and successes, no matter how big or small they are, and appreciate one’s own unique qualities and talents. One can also seek feedback from supportive people who value one for who one is rather than what one has or does. A third way to cope with social comparison on social media is to practice gratitude and altruism. For instance, one can express gratitude for what one has in life rather than what one lacks or desires.

One can also engage in acts of kindness and generosity towards others rather than competing with them or feeling resentful towards them. These strategies can help boost one’s self-esteem and well-being and reduce the negative effects of social comparison on social media.

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In conclusion, social comparison on social media can have detrimental effects on the mental health and well-being of children and young adults, especially when they compare themselves to others who appear to be better off or more successful than them. Social comparison on social media can also interact with other individual and environmental factors that can amplify or mitigate its impact. Therefore, it is important to raise awareness and educate children and young adults about the potential risks and benefits of social media use, and to provide them with strategies and resources to cope with social comparison and enhance their self-esteem and wellbeing.

References

Chou, H. – T. G., & Edge, N. (2012). “They are happier and having better lives than I am”: The impact of using Facebook on perceptions of others’ lives. Cyberpsychology, Behavior & Social Networking, 15(2), 117–121.

Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7(2), 117–140.

Gutman, L. M., Joshi, H., Parsonage, M., & Schoon, I. (2015). Children of the new century: mental health findings from the Millennium Cohort Study. London : Centre for Mental Health.

Mind. (2021). Not making the grade: Secondary schools are struggling to meet the needs of young people with mental health problems. London : Mind.

Newlove-Delgado, T., Marcheselli, F., Williams, T., Mandalia, D., Davis, J., McManus, S., Savic, M., Treloar, W., & Ford, T. (2022). Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, 2022: Wave 3 follow up to the 2017 survey. NHS Digital.

Przybylski, A. K., Murayama, K., DeHaan, C. R., & Gladwell, V. (2013). Motivational, emotional, and behavioral correlates of fear of missing out. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(4), 1841–1848.

Steinberg, L., & Morris, A. S. (2001). Adolescent development. Annual Review of Psychology, 52(1), 83–110.

Taylor, S. E., & Lobel, M. (1989). Social comparison activity under threat: Downward evaluation and upward contacts. Psychological Review, 96(4), 569–575.

Valkenburg, P. M., Koutamanis, M., & Vossen, H. G. M. (2017). The concurrent and longitudinal relationships between adolescents’ use of social network sites and their social self-esteem. Computers in Human Behavior, 76, 35–41.

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