Social Comparisons in the Age of Social Media

When was the last time you scrolled through your Facebook newsfeed? How were you left feeling?

Meet Raj: a 20-something young professional working at a nondescript company. He clocks out from work on a Friday at 8:00pm and is looking forward to the weekend. As he gets into his car, he logs into Facebook. He sees Lady GaGa has a new single out, and he likes her video. He sees Shalini is still looking for a job, and he comments on her post, telling her the company he is working for is hiring interns, and a lot of interns end up getting full-time job offers at the end of their internship period. Good deed for the day done, he thinks, smiling.  He then sees Madan’s post on his feed. Madan, the boy who sat next to him in school, just got a full-time job offer from Google, Hyderabad. Raj’s right thumb hovers over Madan’s profile picture, and his heart sinks.

When your self-worth (i.e. the way you feel about your value as a person) depends on “where you are at”, in comparison to someone else, you are engaging in what is called a social comparison. This can lead to inspiration if it is someone you admire and is clearly out of your league like Lady GaGa. When it is someone who is just like you, and doing much better than you (like Madan), you might not feel very good about yourself. It can, on the other hand, cause you to feel better about yourself if posts like Shalini’s pop up on your newsfeed (i.e. people who are worse off than you are).

The picture is harsher on the eyes when your sense of well-being (i.e. an overall judgement that your life is a good one) is low to begin with, and you are on a medium like Facebook: a social-media-verse populated with hundreds of people just like you from all over the world.  What more, they are more likely to post about the fun, good, crazy, wild nights, than the drearier, forgettable, and regrettable afternoons. Galen Panger, a User Experience Researcher who obtained his PhD in Information Systems with a specialization in Social Media Behavior from UC Berkeley, published a study in 2014 that supports this. When Panger conducted the study on 240 participants, he found that people lower in well-being reported more unfavorable social comparisons through social-media.

Furthermore, individuals with low well-being reported more unfavorable social comparisons on Facebook -a medium where you are more likely to connect with people just like you, talking about the better days- than on Twitter -a medium where you can also connect with celebrities and CEOs of top organizations, and are more likely to comment on current events and general happenings than your personal life. Galen Panger’s study, in the case of Twitter, implied that the presence of people who were not from the direct reference group (i.e. celebrities, organizations and public figures), was related to lesser tendencies to report unfavorable social comparisons. While this seems to suggest that more direct references to self on Facebook is what makes the medium so conducive to unfavorable social comparisons, the article admits that while evidence from the study is suggestive of this connection, the study only found a weak, indirect association, that is  higher presence of reference groups such as peers and colleagues did not map on to greater social comparison tendencies.

What can we do to avoid feeling this way? Deactivating Facebook might not be an option for everyone. Additionally, as previous television-related research indicates, the effect of social comparisons on the self is not unique to social media. The impact of social media on our self-worth is instead, a mere reflection and exacerbation of the way we respond to and navigate through the world. This is what science says we can do to feel better about ourselves, as we scroll past countless vacations, marriage proposals and check-ins at swanky cafes:

  1. Rewind to what you personally value. Is it being a hard worker? Is it being a good mother? Is it a strength, like courage, or creativity? Think back to when this core personal value became important to you. List the many ways you have displayed it in the past. How can you use it now, to solve the problems in front of you?

  2. Change your critical self-talk. Dr. Kristin Neff is an Associate Professor in Human Development from the University of Texas at Austin, known for her work on self-compassion. Dr. Neff’s website features resources to enhance self compassion. For example, a relevant exercise, to enhance compassion toward yourself,  involves noticing the next time you are self-critical (especially when you are passively scrolling down that Facebook News Feed). Treat your inner-critic, the one who calls you “worthless” with kindness too, rather than shutting her up (“stop it, idiot!”) as well. Request an audience with your inner, compassionate self. Think of what your more compassionate friend would say to you if she were sitting right next to you, watching you beat yourself up over not being good enough to have gotten that amazing job. “It’s all right, you have worked hard. You are doing well. It is not a race and you too, will get there soon, if you keep at it.” Give yourself a hug (wrap your arms around yourself!). You deserve it!

And so does every Raj, and on some days, even Madan, while scrolling through their Facebook newsfeed after a rather uneventful day.


Pooja Sathyanarayanan