Research & Insights

Communication and Technology  

When People Compare Themselves to Their Social Media Friends, It Can Help or Hurt Their Feelings

Does social media use lead to greater life satisfaction or self-esteem? Does it lead to better moods? When does social media use lead to positive or negative emotional responses?

It is a well-known perspective that social media is bad for one’s self-esteem and overall mental well-being. But existing evidence for those claims is too broad and imprecise to be accurate or conclusive. Benjamin Johnson, University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications Advertising assistant professor, wanted to understand the specific motives behind social media use in order to determine its actual effects.

To investigate, an online survey was given to 163 adults who used social media. The adults were predominantly female, and most of them used Facebook. Respondents also used Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media platforms.

The study looked at the differing effects of “upward” or “downward” social comparisons with friends and acquaintances that participants viewed online. Upward refers to people on social media who are “doing better in life,” or are happier than the respondent. Conversely, downward refers to people “who are doing worse in life,” or who are sadder than the respondents.

Findings showed that more frequent upward comparisons reduced positive feelings, leading social media users to feel worse about themselves. In other words, by comparing themselves to people who were perceived to be doing better in life, users came away with deflated self-esteem.

By making more frequent downward comparisons of people perceived to be worse off, users felt better about themselves. User’s selectivity and motivations to improve their mood played roles in their perception of social media, as did their patterns of use.

According to Johnson, this study illustrates how more developed, nuanced research on social media use, specifically with regards to upward and downward comparisons, would be beneficial to the study of digital technologies and well-being. The study’s findings show that social media users have different motives, which influence how they compare themselves to the people in their online networks. Social network sites and advertisers on those platforms should be mindful of how upward and downward social comparisons can affect people’s feelings and self-perceptions when they are online.

The original research paper, “Look Up, Look Down: Articulating Inputs and Outputs of Social Media Social Comparison,” appeared in the Journal of Communication Technology, Volume 4, Issue 1, 2021.

 This summary was written by Marie Morganelli, Ph.D.        

Posted: May 13, 2021
Tagged as: ,