A Scholar Breaks Down the Real Reasons We Compare on Social Media

Today we’re chatting with media scholar, Dr. Jennifer Lewallen of the University of Missouri. Dr. Lewallen has extensively researched the impact that social media images can have on women (check out two of her most recent publications: “Pinterest or Thinterest?: Social Comparison and Body Image on Social Media” and “When Image Isn’t Everything: The Effects of Instagram Frames on Social Comparison.”

An avid social media user herself, Dr. Lewallen first saw the need for her research when she began noticing that the lines were getting blurred between health and fitness ideals and body image ideals in pictures posted to social media. She wondered about the impact that comparing oneself to these images had on people and if it influenced them to start new fitness routines and/or to engage in weight loss behaviors (either healthy or unhealthy behaviors). She was also concerned about how these images impacted viewers’ perceptions of themselves (their body image, self-esteem, etc.).

In a nutshell, she has found that when we compare ourselves to others we follow on social media, we can be both negatively and positively influenced by their pictures. For example, social comparison can make us feel unhappy or angry, can lead us to have a distorted view of the ideal female body, and can lead us to want to engage in actions that will lead to extreme weight loss. But on the up side, Dr. Lewallen has found that it can be motivational, and it can help us feel better about ourselves, our choices, appearance and position in life. I’m sure many of us can relate to Dr. Lewallen’s findings and are very familiar with how immersion in social media can affect our emotions and thoughts.

In this interview, Dr. Lewallen helps us understand the “why?” behind this comparison game and gives some great tips on how to protect ourselves from some of the negative effects of social media.

DM: Why do we compare ourselves with others?

Dr. Lewallen: Psychologists have said that social comparison is a natural part of human development. We learn to compare ourselves to others early in life, at around seven or eight years of age. At the early stage, comparison is more about abilities and other children being better or worse than you at certain tasks. By the time we reach adolescence, we become more interested in romantic relationships and comparison tends to center on appearance.

Prominent psychologist Leon Festinger said that we need to evaluate ourselves against others to determine where we fit in socially. We can rely on objective criteria (such as height, weight, etc.), but will then turn to more subjective social comparison (like attractiveness or intelligence) when those objective criteria are not readily available.

For instance, let’s say you’re browsing a fitness account or searching a certain hashtag and you encounter an image of a person posting their fitness progress. When looking at the picture, you can’t tell their height, weight, or athletic ability, so you find yourself comparing based on things like their attractiveness, their muscle tone, or their perceived success in achieving their fitness goal. This is “social comparison.”

By the time we reach adolescence, we become more interested in romantic relationships and comparison tends to center on appearance.

 

DM: We often only think of social comparison as a bad thing — something that hurts our self-esteem. Are their times when social comparison can actually help us?

Dr. Lewallen: Yes, there are times. Essentially, we engage in two types of social comparison — upward or downward. Upward social comparison occurs when we compare ourselves to someone we perceive to be better off than we are and downward social comparison happens when we perceive ourselves to be better off than someone else. Jumping back to the fitness progress example, we may experience downward social comparison by viewing an account of someone who appears to be worse off than us. Perhaps an Instagram user discloses that they are just starting out on their fitness journey and you feel better about yourself because you already have a routine that works for you.

Also, social comparison can benefit people who have high self-esteem. They tend to experience feelings of motivation or hope when engaging in upward social comparison. For example, you might follow a popular social media account where the person recently completed a marathon and posted an impossibly perfect post-race photo. For users who have healthy self-esteem, this may serve as inspiration to try and achieve a goal like this.

My research has demonstrated that image-based media (like Instagram or Pinterest) lend themselves to focusing on one’s appearance and not actual health and fitness goals. I found that people who were engaging in higher levels of social comparison were reporting greater intentions to lose a lot of weight whether or not they needed to. This perception of needing to change themselves was based on what they were seeing on social media.

DM: We all know that the comparison game is alive and well in the world of social media. What exactly is it about social media that makes us want to compare ourselves to others?  

Dr. Lewallen: My research, along with some other studies, suggests that the constant perception that others are doing better in life than you can impact how you see yourself. You may feel like your efforts aren’t good enough or that you need to change something about yourself when you are bombarded with images and updates of others succeeding financially, socially, educationally, etc.

I think this happens for several reasons: 1) Individuals tend to use social media as a “highlight reel,” rather than a reflection of their whole or “real” life. Who really wants to share a bad photo with all their followers or disclose the negative details of their life, when they can highlight the positive aspects? 2) Those who are less savvy with social media may not realize how much others are editing and filtering the photos they share; and 3) We have access to social media platforms at all times and it can be easy to turn to them when we are bored.

You may feel like your efforts aren’t good enough or that you need to change something about yourself when you are bombarded with images and updates of others succeeding…

DM: What can we do to protect ourselves from unhealthy comparison on social media?

Dr. Lewallen: I think social media users can do several things to protect themselves while browsing their accounts. To start, people should know that social comparison is not always a bad thing. In some cases, it can elevate our self-esteem or even push us to reach for higher goals. When we see someone else achieving something we want for ourselves, social media can serve as an extra push to try new methods. The important thing is to recognize whether a goal is realistic for you, especially when it comes to areas of health, diet, and exercise.

If a social media user finds themselves feeling badly after accessing their accounts, I would advise them to take a break and reflect on why they are feeling this way. Consider hiding or unfollowing other users or accounts that are causing any negative feelings about yourself. Know that you have the ability to decide what types of social media you are accessing and when.

***

This holiday season might be a great time to reflect on why and how we’re using our own social media. As we approach the new year, we can resolve to protect our minds and hearts through following people and accounts that build us up rather than bring our confidence down.

Are you more negatively or positively affected by social media? Does it change based on your circumstances? 

Image via Silke Labson

With a Ph.D. in communication from the University of Arizona, Keli was a professor at Pepperdine University for six years. Her research focuses on the media's influence on people and the sexual messages in today's television programs. Taking a break from academia, she now lives in Dallas, TX with her husband and two young daughters.

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