Comparison overload: Social media can connect us, but it also has a deeper psychological effect

Students on a laptop
Scrolling through social media: Navodhya Samarakoon (top) views her Facebook account while Christine Lam looks at Snapchat.

With nearly every high school student owning a smartphone or accessing various social media accounts, the need for popularity and followers can be overwhelming. As a result, favorites, retweets, likes and reblogs have become sources of happiness and self-esteem for teens.

There’s another side to consider, too. Can social media accounts and online profiles have emotional and psychological effects that strike teens deeper than they may think?

“When I was in middle school, I made my first Twitter, but I always felt really weird about what I was going to post and what people would think about me or the post,” said Kylie Johnson, a senior at Wayzata High School.

“So I almost never posted anything and ended up making and deleting like, three different accounts, because I was just super self-conscious about what people thought of it.”

Johnson admitted that feelings of inferiority and loneliness can come from merely looking at another person’s account and seeing that they have twice as many followers or hundreds more friends. It’s also common for teens to see photos or status updates of others and feel left out of activities, accomplishments or relationships.

Shayla Thiel-Stern, a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota and author of “From the Dance Hall to Facebook,” began studying digital media from 2000 to 2004 when there was an outbreak of instant messaging among adolescent girls. While conducting research for her book, she came across a concept called the Social Comparison Theory.

Though the theory was first revealed in 1954 by social psychologist Leon Festinger, the idea behind it is still prevalent today. Festinger concluded that when given the opportunity, humans will evaluate their own self worth by comparing themselves to others.

Social media, more than ever, allows for comparison overload.

“Instagram and Pinterest and Facebook really kind of provoke (the theory), even more so than just regularly, because you get to see so many different people across the globe who you can compare yourself to,” Thiel-Stern said.

Presenting our best

Is it a phenomenon contributing to teen self-esteem? Thiel-Stern said that Instagram and Facebook often give skewed, selective perspectives of what is actually happening in users’ lives. After all, it’s common for people to only present their “best self” online.

“They’re not going to show people the scars and the warts and the cakes that you bake that don’t turn out,” Thiel-Stern said.

Because there are profiles in the digital world that are too perfect to be true, there is high potential for teens to be discouraged and stressed about being just as flawless. This goes for both teenage girls and boys, though Johnson believes that girls tend to be affected more by what they see.

(Boys) “obviously get upset over the same things that we do, but I always feel like with the way society is set up, it’s portrayed that girls have more issues with it or get affected by it more,” she said.

Sairam Venkat, a senior at Maple Grove Senior High, agreed. However, he believes it’s because males are more conditioned to hide how social media affects them.

“Guys are pretty good at masking their feelings to not let other people know how they feel. Because guys are portrayed as macho figures in society, why would they want to let people know how they feel (about social media)?” he said.

Venkat’s perspective fits the common line of thinking. After all, it was once believed that the extent of social media’s effect on males and females were extremely different. However, the influence of social media sites on both genders is starting to balance out, Thiel-Stern said.

“Guys are starting to compare themselves physically to others and that’s starting to hurt their self-esteem, as well … unrealistic body types, unrealistic portrayals of masculinity and femininity, that’s all out there,” she said.

Just like everyone

But it appears to be a small price to pay. Not only does the need to be up-to-date on the latest happenings keep teens online, but so does the need to be “cool and popular.”

Venkat said he believes that teens model their lives after the people they see online, and quitting their accounts would leave them unable to follow the lives of the socially acceptable users everyone likes.

“I think it is mostly due to the fact they so badly want to fit in,” he said.

And not all of that is necessarily negative, added Laura Michael, a senior at St. Paul Central.

“I think while (social media) creates self-esteem problems, it also gives teens validation and can build their self-esteem when a lot of people like their posts and also because all of their friends do it,” she said.

As research on social media and self-esteem continues to develop, one absolute remains. No matter what, high school students can’t seem to quit their online lives, Thiel-Stern said.

“I think the main thing that draws people in is that it’s where everybody is at. You know, you want to be where your friends are,” Thiel-Stern said. “If you’re not on it, you might be missing out on something. If you opt out, you might miss out.”

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