Shamebook: The High Stakes of Social Comparison

Loneliness, dissatisfaction with your job, physique, finances, overwhelming feelings of inferiority—these are the hallmarks of sabotaging self-doubt, as I discussed in a previous column. These aren’t unique to modern society, as literature abounds with examples of jealousy and low self-esteem (see Jane Austen for any number of examples).

However, modern technology and the prevalence of social networking on sites such as Facebook and Tumblr have become, in a way, temples to the cult of social comparison. The consequences of such a comparison can lead to harmful self-doubt, depression, bullying, with sometimes serious outcomes.

Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of Facebook or similar types of social networking, but I do acknowledge that there are advantages to social networking. Sometimes, there is a greater sense of community integration when, for example, someone is starting college, a new school or job and can reach out to meet new acquaintances and friends. Group coordinating can be made easier through the use of social networking sites, giving people access to new opportunities. Social networking is the new normal for current generations, and most of us will have to accept that. But perhaps even social networking will become blasé in a generation looking for the next exciting technological hook—something flashy and instantaneous. Or maybe we will have come to a point where society has shared everything there is to share and people will no longer care—inundation of oversharing leads to saturation, to a point where nothing seems of consequence, nothing is “special” or unique.

Self-affirmation, impression management, and self-presentation

We are a species that classifies. We classify based on species, based on race and gender, we classify our socio-economics, we classify our music, our literature, and often our classifications can have sub-classifications. We hold to this as a way of absolute identification. We self-identify by profession or occupation, as psychologist, or firefighter, as teacher, as student, as parent. But also, people want to identify as a type of person: reliable, kind, generous. And we want control over this self-image; it’s called self-affirmation. But we can also be flexible in how we define ourselves, and this is something that helps us adapt to the world around us.

People often, then, structure their online identities to present the best possible versions of themselves, according to their online community. Some people show photos of elaborate cooking, some display all the symbols of healthful lifestyle choices, others post pictures of idealized family life. Even people who post about their failures, miseries, and latest victimizations are also trying to appeal to their community of peers, like-minded and feeling acquaintances who value disadvantages. Social network posts are designed to portray a particular version of the self with the motive of currying favor with a group.

Social comparison theory reveals that we compare ourselves constantly with others to see how we stack up. And this is harmful when engaging in social media in a way that can generate emotional distress.

So yes, reputation management is natural. But obsessive social comparison is a corruption of that tendency, brought about most acutely by access to prevalent social media.

When our worst online bullies are ourselves

While not all types of social media use has negative effects, nor do all people suffer from the effects, a study done by researchers at two universities in Germany tracked the effects of “passive browsing” and found it to be one of the more negative activities people can do for themselves online. Passive browsing includes spending extensive amounts of time on social networking sites viewing other people’s profiles and photos. This activity can, in many people, trigger feelings of envy, exclusion, and overall loneliness.

Spending time passively browsing Facebook, Instagram, Tumbler, et. al., has been associated with depression and other mental health issues, especially in adolescents and younger people. Viewing profiles of more attractive people was linked in one study to negative emotions, body dysmorphia or depression—in far greater instances than viewing photos of “less-attractive” people. Another study showed similar results in negative body image after online social comparison.

One of the main problems with social networking is the “Like” or comment features available. How many likes, shares, or discussions can be elicited from a post become the currency for online worth, the value of interactions based on superficial attention and feedback. Couple this with a projected image that contains some extent of artifice, and what you have is a cycle of reality distortion, self-doubt, and depression. Ironically, this leads back to a need to somehow find a way (back) into social acceptance—which, in this format, is as equally artificial.

There are many steps to breaking this cycle, but this is especially difficult for young women, who face greater peer pressure than ever, it seems. If you know someone suffering from negative social comparison, or you want to find ways to help yourself jump out of the cycle and reboot self-esteem, contact me at Stephen@PfeifferPhD.com or visit my website www.pfeifferphd.com.

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