Jacqueline Zheng and Victoria Meil
There goes your peace of mind, leaving you in a state of wondering and wandering about how and why is the grass greener on the other side! Social comparison, especially in today’s digitally connected world, is inevitable, but we ought to draw the line before it begins to affect our mental health.Bhirani 2022
As of April 2023, there were 4.8 billion social media users which account for 59.9% of the population worldwide (Petrosyan 2023). Social media enables communication between users, regardless of their location or time. Particularly social networking sites (SNS), “a subclass of social media defined by three elements: profile, network, and stream” (Bayer, Triệu, and Ellison 2020, p.472), like Facebook or Instagram have become ubiquitous (Crolic et al. 2021, p.3) and an essential component of our daily lives (Chen and Lee 2013, p.728). While they offer a platform for individuals to express themselves, to share content, and to build or maintain relationships (Wilcox and Stephen 2013, p.91), they also provide the ideal space for social comparisons (Vogel et al. 2015, p.249). Online, SNS users usually only present themselves in the best light (Krämer and Winter 2008, p.107) and hide any unpleasant content from their networks (Wilcox and Stephen 2013, p.91). As social comparisons can significantly influence the way we feel about ourselves and the way we set goals, it is crucial to understand the consequences of social media usage.
This article examines the impact that social media has on individuals’ self-esteem and goal-setting behavior. More specifically, it assesses the role of social comparison in the context of social media usage.
Mediators between social media usage and self-esteem
The article focuses on four mediators that either boost or decrease a user’s level of self-esteem.
- Upward social comparisons describe comparisons with others who one perceives as superiors that are better off than oneself. “The major findings suggest that approximately 88% [of users] engage in making social comparisons on Facebook and out of the 88%, 98% of the comparisons are upward social comparisons” (Jan, Soomro, and Ahmad 2017, p.329). According to researchers, envy resulting from upward comparisons can contribute to a decrease in self-esteem (Krause and Baumann 2021, p.3).
- Downward social comparisons, on the other hand, take place when individuals compare themselves with others that they perceive as inferior. Wills (1981, p.246) posits that people, especially individuals low in self-esteem and high in motivation for self-improvement, tend to experience downward social comparisons in a more negative way (Buunk and Gibbons 2007, p.14). On the flip side, however, Wills (1981, p.264) also proposes that self-esteem can increase through downward social comparisons. Many individuals feel more fortunate and self-confident after seeing other SNS users struggling harder (Wills 1981, p.245). Consequently, downward social comparisons resulting from SNS usage can result in both higher and lower self-esteem, depending on how users perceive themselves and others.
- Social capital depicts the resources, benefits, and value one gains from relationships and interactions within a community (Coleman 1988, pp.100-101). Research has found that social media users with low self-esteem and life satisfaction can benefit most from SNS use through increased social capital and social support (Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe 2007, p.1162). Valkenburg, Peter, and Schouten (2006) found that social capital and the frequency of online interaction with friends correlate positively with users’ self-esteem. Thus, social capital, which users gain from social media usage, mediates the relationship to self-esteem.
- Communication overload occurs when an individual is overwhelmed with an excessive amount of communication from various sources and channels, exceeding the user’s ability to process the information received (Chen and Lee 2013, p.729). Self-esteem decreases, and the state of mental well-being deteriorates when people are confronted with communication overload. Research suggests that “communication overload mediates the effect of SNS usage on self-esteem” (Chen and Lee 2013, p.731).
Moderators between social media usage and self-esteem
Different moderators influence the strength and direction of the relationship between social media usage and self-esteem.
- Social Comparison Orientation (SCO) describes one’s tendency to compare oneself to others (Buunk and Gibbons 2007, pp.13-14). It has been suggested that “high-SCO individuals” use SNS more frequently than “low-SCO individuals”. Buunk and Gibbons (2007, p.14) posit that people high in SCO subconsciously acknowledge upward social comparison opportunities (Wang et al. 2017, p.6) and are inclined to react more negatively to downward comparisons as they feel like their own identity is mirrored in these profiles. Thus, as suggested by Vogel et al. (2015, p.254), the impact of SNS usage on self-esteem depends on and is moderated by the users’ level of social comparison orientation.
- Feedback has a significant impact on the level of self-esteem. “When the aim is to boost self-esteem, the current research suggests: the more (likes) the better” (Burrow and Rainone 2017, p.232). Since positive feedback can be perceived as an indicator of social acceptance by the “audience” (Chae 2017, p.375), self-esteem increaseswith the number of comments or likes on personal pictures (Wenninger, Krasnova, and Buxmann 2019, pp.11-12) and decreaseswith negative feedback (Pempek, Yermolayeva, and Calvert 2009, p.229).
- Other moderators include the amount of SNS usage (measured by the length of Facebook sessions) (Mehdizadeh 2010, p.363). Researchers conclude that people have become “victims of lower self-esteem and self-growth” due to higher usage of SNS (Jan, Soomro, and Ahmad 2017, p.330). This is because more time spent online triggers upward social comparisons leading to lower levels of self-perception (Chae 2017, p.374). Thus, the intensity of social media usage not only moderates the effect on self-esteem, but also the degree of social comparisons. Additionally, the relationship between SNS usage and self-esteem is moderated by social media addiction, as a higher level of addiction leads to a lower level of self- esteem (Andreassen, Pallesen, and Griffiths 2017, p.291; Hou et al. 2019, p.3).
Social media’s connection to psychological well-being
Crolic et al. (2021, p.26) found a small but noteworthy positive impact of social media usage on psychological well-being. They point out that this positive effectis more likely to occur when social media is used in a “truly social manner (i.e., actively interacting with meaningful social relations in a way akin to in-person social interactions)”Click or tap here to enter text. Similarly, Steinfield, Ellison, and Lampe (2008, p.435) discovered that users can improve their well-being through social media usage since increased social capital through SNS has a positive influence on both mental and physical health.
Nonetheless, generally, most of the research agrees on a negative correlationbetween social media usage and psychological well-being. Researchers imply that the use of SNS such as Facebook “actually make people less happy” (Taylor and Strutton 2016, p.232) and that “social media has a negative impact on mental health” (Braghieri, Levy, and Makarin 2022, p.3). According to Caplan (2010, p.1090), users experiencing mental health issues frequently turn to social media as a means to uplift their mood. However, if this attempt fails to meet their needs, it can exacerbate their mental state, worsening their overall condition.
Impacts on goal-setting behavior through online social comparison
“What is not controversial is the idea that social media use relies on habits” (Bayer, Anderson, and Tokunaga 2022, p.185). When users are active on social media, the pressure to be consistently involved and available is created. Reinecke et al. (2018, p.2) refer to this as “the current trend of ‘always online’ thinking and behavior.” This trend results in a blending of users’ offline and online realms, creating a blurred perception between the two. These actions of staying online constantly might eventually turn into habits which either help SNS users achieve their goals or distract them from goal attainment, “positively charge and/or negatively challenge the more conscious goals of users” (Bayer, Anderson, and Tokunaga 2022, p.281).
Addiction: According to Osatuyi and Turel (2018, p.6), social media addiction occurs when individuals exhibit obsessive usage in settings where refraining from SNS usage would be more beneficial for them. Users that are addicted to social media usage dedicate their time to figuring out ways to spend more time online while spending a significantly greater amount of time on social media than planned (Andreassen 2015, pp.175-176). Research implies that the more often you use social media, the more it contributes to the level of social media addiction. Conversely, a higher level of addiction results in a higher duration and frequency of social media use, which again increases the level of addiction. Thus, this behavior leads to a “vicious cycle” (Turel 2015, p.88). Similarly, psychological distress, which can result from social media addiction, can further deteriorate the level of social media addiction (Hou et al. 2019, p.9). This tends to hinder an individual from setting or achieving goals.
Self-control failure: Self-control failures, which can be caused by distracting notifications, “interrupt people’s goal pursuit by shifting their attention from their goals to social media” (Du, Kerkhof, and van Koningsbruggen 2019, p.5). This refers to a situation where individuals struggle to resist the allure of using SNS despite having other duties and obligations to fulfill (Du, van Koningsbruggen, and Kerkhof 2018, p.74). Research found that approximately 35% of the amount of social media usage was perceived as unproductive, creating conflicts with other goals, and hinder the progress of other tasks (Du, van Koningsbruggen, and Kerkhof 2018, p.3). Furthermore, a study from Wilcox and Stephen (2013, pp.100-101) proved that just a brief SNS engagement of only 5 minutes has a noticeable impact on self-control, leading to diminished abilities in decision-making and achievement. Other studies have proven that the development of habits, combined with self-control issues, could potentially account for 31% of social media usage (Allcott, Gentzkow, and Song 2022, p.2458). Thus, SNS usage, habits, self-control, social media addiction and goal-setting are closely related.
Based on the Theory of Social Comparison (Festinger 1954), Chan and Briers (2019, p.353) state that individuals are motivated to set and achieve goals through upward comparisons as they get inspired by a heightened level of achievement that they aspire to reach. However, motivation declines when observing a superior’s goal attainment compared to when the superior is merely ahead, as the latter suggests the potential for ongoing competition (Chan and Briers 2019, p.354).
Buunk et al. (1990, p.1240) assert that upward social comparisons can cause a state of comfort and inspirationwhen individuals face a challenging situation with the prospect of improvement as they realize that their desired goal is indeed achievable. Furthermore, celebrities and social media influencers, who are significantly present on SNS and used as benchmarks (Chae 2017, p.371), can act as role models and inspirations for what goals to set next.
Nevertheless, it is important to stress that unrealistic comparisons are a major consequence of online social comparisons, while the effects offline may not be as extreme. Upward comparisons create social pressure, as people usually share goals that they have successfully achieved, while hiding setbacks they experience. Thus, individuals tend to prioritize short-term, immediate goals over long-term goals, as short-term goals lead to social gratification that can be shared with the network sooner. Consequently, this pattern increases the risk of self-control failures, overriding their discipline to set long-term goals (Du, Kerkhof, and van Koningsbruggen 2019, p.4).
In a world driven by digital connectivity, the influence of social media on self-esteem and goal setting is undeniable. As social comparisons increasingly inform our online interactions, the complexity of upward and downward comparisons mediated by factors such as social capital and communication overload shape individuals’ self-esteem. Moderators such as social comparison orientation and feedback amplify the impact, while the blurred lines between online and offline realms underscore the importance of mindful engagement for psychological well-being. The complicated relationship between social media, self-control, and goal-setting behavior highlights the need for balanced usage, as the ‘always online’ trend challenges effective goal pursuit. Navigating this landscape requires a nuanced understanding of the interplay between social media, self-esteem, and goal setting to ensure that individuals leverage the potential of these platforms while protecting their mental health and achieving meaningful goals.