A new paper examining 15 years of study suggests that comparing ourselves to others on social media can result in several undesirable psychological outcomes. The paper is published in the Journal Media Psychology.
Carly McComb, a PhD student at The University of Queensland in Brisbane, said she became interested in studying social media because of its enormous impact on so many people's lives. "I believe it is imperative to understand how using these services affects your mood."
Researchers performed a meta-analysis to examine the relationships between two variables of interest. It involves synthesizing the data from several studies that have investigated a similar research question and using statistical techniques to determine a pooled effect size.
A meta-analysis may be used to investigate potential contributors to variation in study findings, as it increases the statistical power of the analysis by aggregating data from multiple studies.
Researchers were particularly interested in examining the effects of social comparisons made on social media. Our reactions can take two forms: we can either be inspired and motivated by the person we're comparing ourselves to (assimilation) or we can be feeling deprivation (contrast).
The authors conducted a systematic search to locate relevant articles for their meta-analysis. They included experimental studies that utilized random assignment. In addition, they excluded clinical populations. The articles had to be reported in English.
The majority of participants came from the United States and Australia, and the average age of the studies was 22.40 years.
When we compare ourselves to others on social media, we are more likely to feel inferior (contrast) than to better (assimilation) according to previous research on social comparison in other situations.
McComb told PsyPost that comparing yourself to other people on social media may affect your mental health, self-esteem, subjective well-being, and body image. "We're left with the impression that others are doing better than us," says the study.
The upward comparison had the largest influence on body image, followed by self-esteem, mental health, and subjective well-being. These effects were independent of the participants' age and gender.
McComb said she was surprised to discover that the effect of upward comparison on social media did not vary depending on age, gender, or study design. "We had assumed that female adolescents and young adults would be the most affected by the comparison process. However, the results revealed that all ages and genders were equally affected."
“I was also surprised that there was no difference in outcomes depending on the approach by which social comparison was induced.”
Understanding the psychological effects of social media use can help us to develop a better understanding of how to utilize these platforms in a healthy and productive manner.
McComb said the key question that needs to be addressed right now is how can social media be used in a positive light that encourages self-evaluations? "This is the focus of my current research, where I am looking into the factors that contribute to finding inspiration in social media content rather than experiencing negative emotions."
"It's extremely important that users are aware of the unrealistic nature of social media," said the author. "We often make upward comparisons because of carefully curated, manipulated, and idealized self-presentation. People don't tend to post about their bad days or upload unflattering photos of themselves. These platforms provide little insight into everyday life, and the perfect lives that we see are only carefully constructed illusions."
Carly A. McComb, Eric J. Vanman, and Stephanie J. Tobin contributed to a meta-analysis of the effects of social media exposure to upward comparison targets on self-evaluations and emotions.