Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jul 02, 2019

Is Social Media Damaging Our Mental Health?

by Yitshak Alfasi
Colorful drawing of people in a fake city, one person stadning ona  giant hadn with a megphone, toehrs walking, giant money flies in part of the sky, confettis seems to hang in the air, a nearby group of houses is surrounded by trees and up arrows

Online social media are a significant part of our lives. We use social networks for leisure activities, to follow our areas of interest, and to make new friends and maintain contact with existing friends. Yet, questions have been raised about the effects of social media on people’s psychological well-being.

Among other things, intense exposure to social networks, such as Facebook, increases the degree to which we compare ourselves with other people.  According to the classic theory of social comparison developed by Leon Festinger in the 1950's, people have a need to evaluate themselves and use other people to do so. We understand what we are like mostly by comparing ourselves to other people.

Social comparison typically occurs automatically and unconsciously, without us investing much time or mental energy. We compare ourselves to other people by collecting information about their competencies, traits, emotions, and opinions. And, unfortunately, we sometimes engage in social comparison even when it is not rational to do so. For example, sometimes we compare ourselves to people who are extremely skilled and competent.   

Social media has significantly increased the frequency and the intensity of our social comparisons. For example, people use Facebook to regularly monitor the continuously updated information about other people’s lives and experiences. However, the social comparisons we make while using Facebook are biased because people use Facebook to present an idealized version of themselves and their experiences. Facebook essentially operates as an impression management tool that people use to present the positive aspects of their lives. Social network users employ a variety of techniques, such as uploading flattering images and sharing events in which they are having fun with friends and family, to highlight their positive features and create the best possible impressions of them.

Because they usually upload positively-biased information about themselves, our social network friends may seem to enjoy an ongoing stream of positive experiences. They frequently go out, enjoy themselves, and participate in new, exciting experiences.  And they often show pictures of their attractive partners (in which they both always seem to be immensely in love), their happy family, or their beautiful children or grandchildren (in the case of older users).  All of this positive information places a negative slant on our own “ordinary” lives that routinely include tedium, problems, failure, and pain. As a result of these social comparisons, we may feel envious, ashamed, unfulfilled, or guilty in ways that diminish our self-esteem and well-being.

In a study I conducted on the psychological implications of social comparisons on Facebook, I divided the research participants into two groups. Participants in one group were asked to browse their Facebook News-Feed (where new posts uploaded by one’s friends appear) for 15 minutes without accessing their own profile or clicking on links that referred them to other websites. Participants in the other group browsed a Facebook page that contained no social content (the National Geographic Facebook page) and were also not permitted to access other sections of Facebook or other websites.  Participants then completed questionnaires that measured depression and how they currently felt about themselves.  

My findings showed that participants who browsed their Facebook News-Feed reported lower self-esteem and more depressive symptoms compared to participants who perused the National Geographic page. For example, participants who were exposed to social content on Facebook tended to agree more with statements such as “I tend to feel that I am a failure,” “I feel that I don’t have a lot to be proud of,” and “Most people can do things better than I can.” They also reported higher levels of hopelessness, despair, and self-disappointment.

Interestingly, these negative effects were stronger for participants who tended to engage in more social comparisons — that is, participants who generally tended to compare themselves to other people.  

These findings indicate that social media may have psychologically negative effects.  When on-line, people engage in the same kinds of social comparison processes as they perform in other areas of life, but this process becomes more intense on online social networks. Because people, and especially young people, spend a lot of time online, the cumulative negative effects on their self-esteem and psychological well-being may be considerable.

For Further Reading

Alfasi, Y. (2019). The grass is always greener on my Friends' profiles: The effect of Facebook social comparison on state self-esteem and depression. Personality and Individual Differences, 147, 111-117.

About the Author

Dr. Yitshak Alfasi is a graduate of the Ph.D. program at the Centre for Research on Self and Identity at the University of Southampton, UK, and a lecturer in the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Hadassah Academic College, Jerusalem. His primary research interests includes adult attachment behavior, online social networks, affect and cognition, social disidentification, and sport.  

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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