If you've ever considered taking a breather from social media, it doesn't always have to mean going cold turkey; being mindful about what content we invite in, and how much time we spend scrolling through our feed are small steps that can have a hugely positive impact on our mental health. Whether or not you choose to stick with your socials, we've gathered research on why now might be a good time to take a break.
Social media has become so ingrained in our day to day that we've all but accepted as an inevitable part of our existence. There are of course corners of Facebook and Instagram that do a lot of good, but they have to be carefully curated, discovered, and nurtured, whilst the more insidious aspects can be happened upon (alarmingly easily) by chance. With this in mind, we thought it would be helpful to understand the psychology behind why social media can have such adverse affects on our wellbeing, rather than just suffering through the what of feeling crappy when our last post got no likes.
The Social Comparison Monster
Throughout history, one of the things that has significantly contributed our unhappiness as a species has been social comparison. We are continuously (and subconsciously) judging the lives of our peers relative to our own, which in turn distorts our judgement about the things we care about the most. Social comparison doesn't discriminate, and can seep into our worldview of almost anything; from our job, to our salary, to something as innocent our children's behaviour, parenting techniques, pets, clothes, car, body, looks... you name it, the list goes on and on.
The 1990s: Affluence, TV, & Social Comparison
Back in the 90s, psychologists found that watching TV programmes which showed people living more affluent lifestyles than our own had a negative impact on our happiness. It seems that even though we are consciously aware that the Real Housewives of Wherever have no relation to our own realities, and that the Kardashian's lives are in no way comparable to ours, our brains, unfortunately, aren't programmed to think this way (we guess millennia of natural selection wasn't prepared for humanity watching KUWTK en masse at the dawn of the 21st Century? Weird.).
To back this up, we'll introduce you to some of the research. First up, O'Guinn & Schrum (1997), who found that the number of hours spent watching TV increased our estimations of other people's wealth, whilst also decreasing estimations of our own wealth. Baffling, right? Schor thought so too, and followed this up in 1999 only to find that households who spent an extra hour watching TV per week were spending $4 more (per week) than those who watched less telly. To sum things up, both studies found that if we perceive others to be living better lives than our own (no matter how unrealistic the comparison) our brains unconsciously measure our own lives by this (often unattainable) ideal.
You see, back when our brains were evolving, we were motivated to do better than those around us, which was something we saw. So our brains became programmed to unconsciously process all visual information to motivate us to do better... but a bit of a bummer when 80% of our visual information comes from Netflix & Instagram now.
The 1990s: Self-Worth
As we've already mentioned, social comparison doesn't discriminate in what our brains choose to judge as better or worse. Take our looks for instance; a study by Kenrick et al. (1993) asked women to rate their happiness on a 4 point scale before and after looking at pictures of models. Despite previous research which claimed that exposure to attractiveness increased wellbeing, seeing attractive people of the same sex caused happiness to drop even after just a few seconds (!) of looking at the photographs.
The 21st Century & The Age of Social Media
You may be questioning why we've only referenced studies conducted during a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth; but if you take their findings and relate it to our experiences in the 21st Century, then you can draw some pretty scary conclusions about our relationship with social media and the effect it has on our happiness. We are living through a point in history when we have unlimited freedom to look at people we deem more successful/thinner/ musclier/prettier/handsomer/richer than ourselves right in our pockets all. day. long.
Since the dawn of Facebook, it's as if social comparison has been put on steroids. Whether it's checking people's Instagram feeds, or what they've put on Facebook, said on Twitter, added to their Snapchat stories, TikTok, LinkedIn, the list goes on and on and on, and we're pulled into a never-ending vortex of information about other people's highly filtered lives. Whether we get stressed because of a lack of approval (likes/comments/shares) or simply because we are bombarded with images of people living seemingly more interesting lives than our own, the indiscriminate blanket of social comparison has quickly become suffocating as technology has evolved.
Upward & Downward Social Comparison
Vogel et al. (2014) decided to take a look at how social media (in this case, Facebook) affected our self-esteem. The first part of the study, perhaps unsurprisingly, found that the more Facebook use we have, the lower our self-esteem becomes. The second half of the study however had more unexpected results; Vogel and his colleagues also looked at the effect of the direction of our social comparisons - whether they were upward (looking at people we deemed better than ourselves) or downward (looking at people we deemed lesser than ourselves). As you may have guessed, when looking at upward social comparisons our self-esteem drops significantly, but the flip side is where it gets more interesting. The assumption about downward social comparison that naturally follows is that it would increase our self esteem, yet Vogel found that downward comparisons had little to no affect on our self esteem at all. So what does this mean? Essentially, at worst, social media can have a very negative impact on our self-esteem, and at best, it has no effect on it whatsoever - leaving our self-esteem in the same place it was before we ventured onto the platform. The take home being, there doesn't seem to be a situation in which social media affects our self-esteem positively...
Healthy Social Media Habits
Sometimes it's too hard to say goodbye, in spite of the research. Social media has come to feel like another limb for many of us, and of course there are many exceptions to the rules we've seen above; communities that offer each other support in ways we couldn't have imagined ten years ago, connection with people all around the world, and accounts created with the wholesome intention of making us feel good. So perhaps the most important attitude to take into the online world is to be conscious and mindful when curating your various feeds. Some things to keep in mind are:
Only follow accounts that make you feel happy
If you come across something that makes you feel bad, unfollow it
Avoid accounts that set unrealistic standards and unattainable ideals
Remind yourself of the highly filtered nature of social media
Set time limits on your phone to lock you out of certain apps if you're spending too much time scrolling
Consider taking mini-media-vacays every so often - even if it's just for a day
Considering that we spend - on average - 2 hours and 23 minutes a day looking at social media, you might find that what you gain from getting that time back leads to far more productive, enjoyable, and positive hobbies (that in turn will boost both your self-esteem and general wellbeing). Just think about how many books you could read/podcasts you could listen to/pictures you could paint/football you could play/gains you could squat if you had 17 extra hours a week!
So if you feel that social media has taken its toll on your happiness recently, we're not saying bin it altogether (but absolutely feel free to do so), you can just take a break (for a day/weekend/week/month/forever). Disable your account, delete the apps for one weekend, and decide for yourself if you feel you've gained or lost something at the end of it.
Role of TV in the Construction of Consumer Reality (O'Guinn & Shrum,1997)
Why We Want More Than We Need, Juliet Schor, 1991
When Social Comparison Overrides Social Reinforcement (Kenrick et al., 1993)
Social Media and Self Esteem (Vogel et al., 2014)