New research examining 15 years’ worth of research indicates that comparing ourselves to people who seem better off than us on social media can result in several negative psychological outcomes. The new findings appear in the journal Media Psychology.
“I became interested in researching social media because of its massive presence in the lives of so many people,” said study author Carly McComb, a PhD candidate at The University of Queensland in Brisbane. “Currently, there are over 4.2 billion people worldwide that are active social media users. For something that has become a large part of many lives, I believe it is imperative to gain an understanding of the psychological impact of using these sites.
To examine the outcomes of social media use, the researchers conducted a meta-analysis — a statistical technique used in research to combine data from multiple studies that have investigated a similar research question. It involves synthesizing the results of individual studies, using statistical methods to calculate a pooled effect size that represents the overall magnitude and direction of the relationship between variables of interest.
A meta-analysis can provide a more precise estimate of the true effect size than any single study, as it increases the statistical power of the analysis by pooling data from multiple studies. Additionally, it can help identify sources of variability in study results, such as differences in study design, sample size, or data collection methods, and can be used to investigate potential moderators of the relationship between variables.
The researchers were particularly interested in examining the consequences of social comparisons made on social media. When we compare ourselves to someone else who we perceive to be superior in some way, our reactions can take two dominant forms. We can either feel inspired and motivated by the person we’re comparing ourselves to (assimilation) or we can feel a sense of inferiority (contrast).
The authors conducted a systematic search to find relevant articles for their meta-analysis. They included studies that were experimental in design and used random assignment. In addition, they only included studies with a control or downward comparison condition and which occurred in a social media context. The studies had to be reported in English and have no age or gender restrictions, but exclude clinical populations.
Forty-eight studies were included, which represented data from 7,679 participants. The majority of participants were from the United State and Australia, and the average age across the studies was 22.40 years.
This study found that when we compare ourselves to others on social media, we are more likely to feel worse (contrast) than to better (assimilation). This is in line with previous research on social comparison in other contexts.
“The study revealed that comparing yourself to other people on social media can be detrimental to your mental health, self-esteem, subjective well-being, and body image,” McComb told PsyPost. “The ‘highlight reel’ nature of social media means that the majority of content we are exposed to leaves us with the impression that others are doing better than us. Comparing our lives to those that we perceive as “better-off” is referred to as an upward comparison and is damaging to our psychological well-being and the way that we view ourselves.
Upward comparison had the largest effect on body image, followed by self-esteem, mental health, and subjective well-being. These effects were not dependent on the age and gender of participants. In addition, the ways in which social comparisons were evoked in the studies also did not moderate the effects.
“I was surprised to find that the effect of upward comparison on social media did not differ according to age, gender or study design,” McComb said. “We had hypothesized 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 according to the method by which social comparison was induced. Some studies provided participants with pre-tested content that was specifically designed to induce upward comparison, while other studies required participants to simply scroll their own personal news-feeds. Interestingly, using social media in a normal fashion had the same effect as viewing stimuli that had been manipulated to be highly upward in nature.”
Social media can have both positive and negative effects on users’ mental health, and understanding these effects can help to design interventions to promote positive outcomes and reduce negative outcomes. By understanding the psychological outcomes related to social media use, we can develop a better understanding of how to use these platforms in a healthy and productive way.
“I believe that the major question that needs to be addressed now is how social media can be used in a beneficial manner that encourages positive self-evaluations,” McComb explained. “This is the focus of my current research where I am investigating the factors that contribute to finding inspiration in social media content, rather than experiencing negative emotions.”
“I think it is very important that users are aware of the unrealistic nature of social media,” she added. “The upward comparisons that we make are often the result 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 do not offer much insight into real life and the perfect lives that we see are nothing but carefully constructed illusions.”
The study, “A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Social Media Exposure to Upward Comparison Targets on Self-Evaluations and Emotions“, was authored by Carly A. McComb, Eric J. Vanman, and Stephanie J. Tobin.