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  • Writer's pictureSophia Rebolledo

How can social media affect our mental health, self-comparison, and self-image?

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine, high-school students across the world have turned to social media as their main outlet and source of solace. However, as social media becomes more ingrained in our everyday routines and lives, what are the effects?

Social media has a huge influence on how often we compare ourselves to people we see and follow online.

The social comparison theory was first formed in 1954 by psychologist Leo Festinger, which suggests that people have an innate drive to evaluate their own personality, traits, abilities, etc. in comparison to others.

The social comparison theory argues that humans have a tendency to make "downward" social comparisons with people whom we feel are "worse or less skilled" than us, which inherently raises our personal self-esteem.

This concept applies conversely during "upward" social comparisons, which is when we compare ourselves to people who we think are "better than us." This can reduce our self-esteem which is most prevalent and more prone to happening on social media.

In the real and offline world, social comparison involves the self and usually those around you. On social media, social comparison is increased and amplified allowing us to go in deep and endless spirals of comparison where the amount of people you could compare yourself to are seemingly limitless.


Many of us, intentionally or unintentionally, internally correlate the amount of likes, comments, views, and other metrics we receive on social media to our own intrinsic self-worth. Studies have shown that users tend to focus on gaining "likes" or followers as a means of increasing their own self-worth.

A study at the University of Pittsburgh found a correlation between the amount of time spent on social media apps with self-image in which those who spent more time on social media reported eating and negative body image concerns (in addition to negative effects on mental health.)

Mental Health

According to different research studies, increased social media use is correlated to higher levels of loneliness, envy, anxiety, depression, stress, and even hindered social skills.

This is due to multiple different reasons, including social media triggering feelings of inadequacy. People using social media may also feel that their lives or appearances aren't comparing favorably to other people they see on social media, which can also trigger envy and dissatisfaction.

A 2019 study found that social media use is also tied to disrupted or delayed sleep, which is essential for well-being. Research shows that disrupted or delayed sleep have effects on mental health, such as depression or memory loss.

FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)

With social media, we seemingly have the world at our fingertips. All of the trending new happenings are instantly available to us. Social media may make us feel like we always have to be "in the know" at all times, leading to a constant fear or missing out, or FOMO.

Because of this, people may compulsively check their phones at the cost of losing sleep or choosing to stay on social media instead of in-person hangouts. According to a 2020 study, FOMO has effects on mental health, leading to symptoms such as anxiety, lack of concentration, and a dependence on social media for instant gratification.

As much as it seems like the entire world revolves around social media, it is not the same as we interact with the world in real life. While social media comes with amazing pros like connecting with people across the world and being able to vastly share information instantaneously, social media does not capture reality and instead a fabricated version. For instance, influencer's attempts to "make Instagram casual again" with "photo dumps" of their "everyday" aesthetic lives may contribute and feed even more negatively into a person's self-esteem and self-comparison than a "normal" post that is more obviously curated as users are carefully self-selecting a variety and nuance of photos to portray the most "carefree" or "cool" life in which followers are even more so convinced that this is someone's "real" life.

As a fellow teenager who has fallen a victim to the deep cycles of comparison on social media and has wanted to portray super "casual" and "everyday" social media accounts of only my best moments, it is important to remind ourselves that we have no idea what someone might be going through beyond their social media posts, yet we have a tendency to judge others (and ourselves) through what people post, how many likes they receive, how many followers they have, etc.

Do you notice when you compare yourself to others after scrolling on social media? How are you experiencing the world beyond a phone screen?

Tips for Social Media Navigation:

  1. Be intentional of your following

  2. Account for your time on social media

  3. If you feel as if you cannot "unfollow" someone but they are negatively contributing to your social media experience, consider "hiding" them from your feed

  4. When working, sleeping, or needing time to focus/relax, put your phone in a place where you cannot see or hear notifications/buzzes (you can be swayed to check your phone or take a break for only 2 minutes that can easily lead to 30 or 40 minutes)

  5. Turning off social media notifications completely

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