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Why Facebook is Making Us Sad: Social Comparison

Marriages. Anniversaries. Babies. Birthdays. There’s no shortage of good news on Facebook — and that might be making you feel bad. Reading other people’s accomplishments on Facebook makes us reevaluate our own circumstances and decisions, and we might not like what we see. A school friend gets an A on an important assignment, and you only get a C. A coworker boasts about his new BMW, while you’re driving a four-year-old Honda. A high school friend discusses the plans for her upcoming wedding, and you’ve never been anything but a bridesmaid.

The Heart of the Matter: Social Comparison Theory

There’s a scientific reason why Facebook can make people depressed. Social comparison theory explains how individuals measure themselves against the status, successes and situations of other people. This kind of evaluation can stir up a lot of feelings about looks, intelligence, success, wealth and other factors.

Researchers have identified two types of social comparison:

Social comparison is simply part of being human. It’s in our nature to compare ourselves to others, as we all have an internal drive to determine where we stand with our peers. Facebook has, to a degree, exacerbated the issue because now, instead of comparing ourselves to our circle of friends and family, we are bombarded with information from a wide social net.

Psychologist Meg Jay says millennials are particularly driven to compare themselves to what they read on Facebook. “Facebook seems to offer up an easy way to grade yourself relative to others, and many twentysomethings use it precisely this way,” she writes. “Facebook can be a place where ‘catching up’ and ‘keeping up’ are less about connecting and more about comparing.”

It’s important to note that the negative effects of social comparison aren’t limited to Facebook. Other forms of social media, such as Pinterest, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter, can lead to social comparison in a variety of ways. For example, a 2016 study, “Pinterest or Thinterest,” found that fitness images on Pinterest contributed to upward social comparison issues and intentions to engage in extreme weight-loss behaviors. Research on the relationship between social media, social comparison and specific issues like body image has emerged in recent years.

Downsides of Upward and Downward Comparison

Some recent research from the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology has discovered that social comparison, upward or downward, has negative consequences and a tendency to lead to what’s being called Facebook Depression. A 2016 meta-analysis from Lancaster University found that Facebook users were at a greater risk of depression when they made negative social comparisons and frequent negative status updates, accepted former partners as Facebook friends and felt envy from observing others.

Upward comparison is not an inherently bad thing: It can spur us to reassess our goals and priorities, and strive for improvement. However, most of us will be prone to allow others’ good fortune to fuel a sense of low self-esteem, depression and jealousy. Research shows that we tend to believe others on Facebook are better off than we are.

It is tempting to see downward comparison as a good thing, as it may boost self-esteem. However, psychologist Juliana Breines warns that downward comparison, in the long run, skews perception by placing too much emphasis on the misfortune of others and failing to highlight positive attributes. This “limits our ability to emphasize and support them in good times and bad,” she writes.

Avoiding the Trap

Comparison is part of human nature, and it’s folly to believe that you can simply stop it at will. Instead, look for ways to put comparison in context, and be realistic about who you are and what you have accomplished. Here are some ideas that may help:

  • If you’re not feeling good about yourself, stay away from social media. Social media can be addictive, and it’s difficult to ignore it. However, limiting your time on Facebook might reduce the compulsion to compare yourself to others. A 2016 study from the Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking Journal found that taking a break from Facebook led to increased life satisfaction and more positive emotions.
  • Get some perspective IRL. Text doesn’t convey the whole message. Talking to people in the real, not online, world can help you see the bigger picture. While Facebook allows for post and comments, it’s no substitute for a conversation in real time over a cup of coffee.
  • Don’t be fooled by the posts. Some people tend to portray their best selves online. That means they’re much more willing to share news about promotions and purchases than express their fears and concerns. Remember that the people whose lives look great online might be dealing with some of the same issues that you do. In a 2016 survey, less than one-third of respondents said they were honest all the time online. That means a great deal are lying or stretching the truth.
  • Be grateful. Social media can help you practice gratitude in your daily life. Take time each day to write a post about something you’re grateful for — something you’ve done, or a friend’s accomplishment, as examples. You might find that expressing gratitude makes you more positive, compassionate and kind.

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