A year ago, logging on to Facebook felt like playing a game of emotional roulette. I had just finished graduate school and was hunting for a job in magazine journalism. I regularly opened Facebook to see eager, boastful (sometimes smug) posts from classmates who had been hired by large news outlets such as NPR, Business Insider and The Associated Press. As my stomach turned, I would think, Why didn’t I get that job? My credentials are just as good! If the post came from a person I didn’t deem worthy of such an impressive position, I would fall into a slump of self-pity for the rest of the day. When I saw people who didn’t land amazing jobs, I felt an odd sense of satisfaction I’m not proud to admit.
One of my close friends recently texted me: “Well, I just went on Facebook and now I’m crying.” She saw the medical school graduations, the new houses and the world travels, and started feeling like her life was at a standstill. Everyone else seemed to have life figured out, and she felt like hers was coasting by.
When L’Oreal Payton—a 28-year-old media relations manager for the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana—saw friend after friend sharing their engagements on Facebook a few years ago, she couldn’t help but throw her own pity parties, too. “I feel like a terrible friend for admitting this, but when one of my close friends got engaged, I was on the phone happy for her and then when I was by myself in the shower, I cried,” she says. She had been in a relationship for a longer period of time than her friend, yet she hadn’t yet tied the knot. “I didn’t feel good about myself.”
We tend to compare ourselves to others on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter and Snapchat, though Facebook and Instagram (the most visually striking) seem to be the chosen platforms for seeing how we line up. It’s a natural human instinct to judge our progress or success in life by seeing how we match up against others—what psychologist Leon Festinger called “social comparison theory” in the 1950s. Karen North, Ph.D., a clinical professor of communication and the director of the digial social media program at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, says we have always looked to others as a way to measure our progress in life. “The only thing that really changes is the technologies that mediate our behavior. Now we’re rediscovering psychological principles as they are playing out using digital devices.”
The effects of seeing how we measure up to others on social media are still in the nascent stages of research, and North says the concept is not fully understood yet. But one study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology—“Seeing Everyone Else’s Highlight Reels: How Facebook Usage is Linked to Depressive Symptoms”—suggests these comparisons may make us depressed. The study looked at college students’ social comparison habits and concluded that, “people feel depressed after spending a great deal of time on Facebook because they feel bad when comparing themselves to others.”
North emphasizes that studies like this aren’t comprehensive enough to be taken at face value—researchers are still fairly unsure how to study this topic, and other factors could have contributed to the depression. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a real problem. “Nobody is going to say ‘No that doesn’t happen,’ because it does happen,” she says. “This is one where people’s gut instincts are correct that reading things on Facebook can make people feel bad about themselves. But it’s complicated, because there are all of these nuances.”
Now we compare ourselves to perfectly crafted (and sometimes exaggerated) representations of people’s lives.
The comparisons we make may leave us feeling blue and insecure, as if we’re not keeping up with everyone. We used to compare ourselves to how we saw people at family gatherings or in the office. Now we compare ourselves to perfectly crafted (and sometimes exaggerated) representations of people’s lives, without seeing the engagement ring that doesn’t fit, the sunburn while surfing in Costa Rica, the less-than-stellar salary at the new job or the anxiety that comes with having a newborn baby. We see exactly what they want us to see.
Social Comparison Theory Amplified
Despite knowing that using social media could make us anxious or depressed, we still scroll through our Facebook and Instagram feeds to see whether people have hit the milestones we also hope to hit. Social comparison is a natural, important part of being human. We want to measure our progress. Payton says she felt great after giving up Facebook for Lent one year, but couldn’t resist going back when her curiosity about what everyone else was doing took hold. Today’s teenagers call this FOMO, or “fear of missing out.”
“How do you figure out where you stand? How do you figure out whether you’re good at things or bad at things?” North asks. “What you do, and what everybody does, for the most part, is what we call social comparison theory—we look at others and say, How do we stack up compared to other people around us?”
It’s normally a healthy way to measure our progress in life. But it becomes problematic when we compare ourselves to perfectly crafted versions of other people, or when we compare ourselves to people in different stages of life.
North says there is a fascinating phenomenon (and problem) at the heart of social media comparison: choosing who we actually compare ourselves to. She says when you ask people how well they perform a certain task, most will say they can do it better than about two-thirds of their “relevant peer group” at anything, from recreational tennis to teaching fifth grade, to running a company. North says we all have a “very real need” to feel better than this many people, so we alter our relevant peer group in order to feel confident.
“We manipulate what we believe to be our relevant peer group by setting our own standards,” she says. The detrimental effect of this is that we’re making comparisons that are either way too far-reaching (e.g., an entry-level accountant comparing himself to a CEO) or we’re manipulating our group so we’re far better than most (e.g., a freelance writer with 40 years of experience comparing himself to 22-year-old bloggers).
North suggests the first step toward healthy comparison—after all, some is good—should be identifying the correct peer group. Then you can make reasonable upward and downward judgments. “Successful people really need to compare upward at least part of the time. They need to find their relevant peer group and say, ‘I’m better than two-thirds of my relevant peer group, but let me take a look at the one-third and see what they’re doing that’s better.’ ”
By identifying the correct peer group, we can feel our own sense of accomplishment and pride while also admiring those above us and striving to achieve what they have, whether it’s a big promotion or a yearly exotic vacation.
Image Crafting at Its Finest
Facebook used to be a platform for posting everything from the new mind-blowing Bright Eyes song we just heard to the delicious beignet we just scarfed down. It began as a way to connect with people both near and far. We enjoyed sharing our day with friends and family. It has since evolved into a platform for sharing the most meaningful, remarkable or unique moments in our lives, not only because we feel a stronger urge to post content that will garner numerous likes, but also because now, we know who else might be looking at our page: potential employers, ex-boyfriends, the new co-worker we want to impress.
We now feel self-imposed pressure to share (and amplify and beautify) the big life moments, not the everyday ones. If we do post the everyday ones, we incorporate image crafting, or the process of posting deceptively exciting and beautifully staged photos in order to seem more perfect on social media. Friends see a couple hiking in Hawaii, but not the terrible argument they had the same day. “On Facebook or Instagram, you don’t have the benefit of observing people in their natural environment,” North says. “What you see instead is the façade or presentation that people want to portray.” We risk comparing our seemingly banal lives with ones that seem thrilling and ever-changing, which can make us feel inferior.
Because of the perceived pressure people feel to post moments just as interesting or exciting as everyone else’s, they may exaggerate or share misleading information. Justin Brady, a 32-year-old freelance creative strategist in Des Moines, Iowa, has struggled with feelings of envy or jealousy on social media. Several years ago, an acquaintance of his posted photos from Maui on Twitter and wrote that a conference had flown him out there to be the keynote speaker.
“I’m like, How on earth did that happen? How was he getting these invites? What am I doing wrong? And that really bothered me,” Brady says. “Only two years later, I was speaking with him and it popped out that the reality was that he had a full-time job, they flew the entire company out for a conference and he got to speak at a small workshop to his team. It’s amazing how what we see on social media is edited.”
North agrees, calling Facebook a “PR machine”—a vessel for ensuring others see our lives as picture-perfect and impressive, not riddled with the inevitable setbacks and flaws.
I later discovered that the classmate who I thought landed a job at NPR was really just an intern. And Payton discovered her friend who landed a killer job after college only did so because her dad had a connection on staff.
“People need to learn to take other people’s social media posts with a grain of salt and recognize that it represents how people want to share their experiences,” North says. “All the facts are not there.”
The next time you are tempted to throw a social media-induced pity party, remember that most of the time, nothing is nearly as perfect as it seems.