Study Shows People on Social Media Compare Themselves to Their Peers

As social media use continues to play an increasingly active role in our lives, new studies find that many people use these sites as a tool for self-evaluation.

Social networking sites, like Facebook or Twitter,  provide an instant picture of the lives of those around us. Individuals can see each others' pictures and comments on a daily basis, and oftentimes these images may be more idealized than a person's real life.

Additionally, there are quantifiable measures on social media in the form of number of friends or followers, number of likes, and number of comments. These indicators allow people to easily compare their lives to the lives of their friends through a process called social comparison.

Comparison and self-evaluation on social networking sites can have negative or positive effects on users

The social comparison theory suggests that people analyze themselves in comparison with others who have similar characteristics. Social comparisons come in two forms: upward and downward. In upward comparisons, people compare themselves to others they view as superior, while in downward comparisons, the judgment is based on other individuals who they have deemed inferior.

In the past, it has been found that downward comparisons lead to enhanced self-esteem while
upward comparisons decreased self-esteem. Because social media focuses so heavily on image, comparisons are often centralized on physical appearance. Self comparison can lead to lowered perception of self, depressive symptoms, and an overall lower quality of life. 

A recently performed study indicates that those who engage in body comparison on social media felt worse after upward comparisons and better after downward comparisons. The effects of these comparisons seem to be stronger for women, who most likely already have existing insecurities about their appearances.

People who are more prone to comparison will utilize social media for this purpose, but it will also more negatively affect them

It has also been shown that people with a higher tendency to socially compare will spend greater amounts of time on social media but will also be much more negatively affected by it. But why would people use social media more despite the fact that it hurts them?

Research finds that first, many people see social comparison as a mechanism for self improvement. They feel that by viewing another person's page who is "superior" to them, they will be inspired and work harder to achieve their own goals. Second, for people who are unsure of themselves, social media serves as a great tool for self-evaluation, and this seemingly beneficial aspect may outweigh its negative effects. Finally, many people can't recognize the detrimental effects of social media on their own self-esteem and will therefore continue to use it without knowing its effect on their well being.

People select images to post on social media that showcase themselves in a positive light

Another survey, conducted by the Renfrew Center Foundation, showed that as many as 50% of people edit their selfies, enhancing the pictures to make them more flattering. People appear to edit their selfies as a direct result of social comparison. Overall, it has been observed that people attempt to put their best foot forward on social media so they can live up to or exceed the quality of their peers' post and, in theory, feel better about their own appearances or lives.

Studies find that when individuals spend a greater amount of time on social networking sites, they view more content and have more opportunities to compare themselves to others. This encourages them to look more intensely at their own selfies and make sure they are up to par with the others they see on their peers' social media pages. Although many individuals may think that this can raise their self-esteem or self awareness, it instead leads to a decreased satisfaction with their true physical appearance and lower levels of self-esteem.

Social media interactions are vastly different from everyday interactions in that they do not occur as rapidly, giving people time to carefully build the content they want to put out into the world. Given that people already have a tendency to want to manage other people's impressions of them, social media serves as a way to create a persona that is an idealized version of reality.

Pictures on social networking sites are selectively presented to solely incorporate the positive aspects of people's lives. Thus, as people compare their real lives to the social media version of the lives of others, they will often feel a raised sense of disappointment or dissatisfaction with themselves.

Women are more negatively impacted by comparison and objectification on social media

Throughout many of the studies done on the effects of social comparison, it is apparent that women are particularly susceptible to the negative impacts of social media. Women are oftentimes "objectified" on these sites, meaning that they attempt to look at themselves as an outsider would view them and subsequently judge their merit on this basis.

Because women already face existing pressure to attain a certain physical appearance, they feel the need to put more effort into social media than men do. Studies find that while women tend to showcase their physical attractiveness on social media, men focus more on non-physical character traits, such as achievements or self-promotion. Women also spend greater amounts of time editing their photos than men do.

Additionally, social comparison for women causes increased levels of body image dissatisfaction. Women not only make comparisons to their peers, as men will also do, but they also compare themselves to celebrities. The media has a prescribed set of standards of beauty for women, while men have a broader range of ideals. This simplifies comparison for women and makes it far more common.

Because women compare themselves to celebrities as well as peers, the difference between a woman's ideal and her reality is greater than a man's ideal and his reality. This discrepancy leads women to have high levels of body image dissatisfaction and insecurity.

For more information on this study, see this article in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.

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