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Ever find yourself scrolling through your Instagram feed and wondering how everyone’s lives seem so much happier/cooler/healthier than yours? It’s human nature to occasionally compare ourselves to the people around us. But why?
“We are always working to establish our sense of self, and one way to do that is to constantly assess how our successes and failures—and life in general—compare to others,” says Dr. Larry Rosen, professor of psychology and expert on the psychology of technology at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
“Social media amplifies social activity,” says Dr. Pamela B. Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Santa Barbara, California. So it takes social comparisons to a whole new level.
“It’s only natural to compare yourself to others, and social media allow us to do this through looking at other people’s posts, photos, and videos,” says Dr. Yalda T. Uhls, award-winning child psychologist, researcher, and author of Media Moms and Digital Dads: A Fact Not Fear Approach to Parenting in the Digital Age.
But…is what we’re seeing online an accurate measure for comparison?
Looking at social media can negatively affect our self-esteem in the same way that looking at glossy, retouched magazine photos can. We may feel bad about ourselves when we compare our looks to the seemingly “perfect” images we’re seeing on someone else’s profile.
Studies have also shown that frequent social media use may contribute to depression or feeling less satisfied with our lives. In other words, social media itself does not cause depression, but the way we absorb the information on our newsfeeds can cause negative emotions, which can then lead to depression.
Here are six things to remember when social media is making you feel bad about yourself:
1. Images on social media are often filtered.
Marina*, a sophomore from Indianapolis, Indiana, says she compares herself to others on social media fairly often. “I mostly compare my body and looks to theirs and wonder how they make themselves look so stunning.”
When we compare ourselves to these idealized versions of perfection, we are only setting ourselves up for disappointment.
Be aware of what is happening
“Recognize that this is normal so you can better understand how it affects you rather than just feeling guilty about it,” says Dr. Pamela B. Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Santa Barbara, California.
Remember to look beyond the filter
Marina reminds herself how Instagram filters can change an image to make it look more appealing, and these representations aren’t realistic. “Also, there are many products such as hair extensions and fake eyelashes that can distort natural beauty and create a non-realistic image,” she says.
*Name changed for privacy
2. Social media doesn’t portray the whole truth.
It’s not just the images we alter on social media. People are very selective with what they share online, and we tend to only showcase the positive aspects of our lives for everyone to see.
Research shows people are using social media to closely monitor how they present themselves publicly. “People will only show what good things are going on in their lives, making it seem to others as though they have very happy lives,” says Wyatt, a sophomore from Indianapolis, Indiana.
We tend to “only post strong accomplishments rather than problems we are facing,” says Dr. Larry Rosen, professor of psychology at California State University Dominguez Hills.
When you start to feel bad about yourself while scrolling through social media, “Remind yourself that what you are seeing is not necessarily the truth,” says Dr. Yalda T. Uhls, child psychologist, researcher, and author. “Think about what you post and how you most likely try to put your best foot forward on your own social media profile,” she says. “That’s what others are doing too, but chances are their offline life is just as imperfect as yours.”
3. Focus on the things that matter.
Notice your self-talk. Are you being self-critical or telling yourself that someone else’s life must be better than yours? Try to change your focus to zero in on the positive rather than the negative. “Think about all the great things that happen during the day, small things that you never post,” says Dr. Rutledge. “Catching a great song; seeing a cute animal; a bit of sunshine; the sound of rain; a good hair day; a good joke. The more times you remember positives in your life and take a moment to feel happy and grateful, the better you will feel overall.”
Cultivate your offline relationships
Spending a lot of time online may skew how we view our surroundings and ourselves. A 2012 study found that participants who spent more time on Facebook believed their friends were happier and had better lives than they did.
Go offline and make plans with the people who make you feel good about yourself, suggests Josh, a recent high school grad from Indianapolis.
Connect with people who bring out the best version of you
Be more selective with who you follow. If someone is posting updates that are making you feel down about yourself, unfollow them. You are in control of the messages that show up in your feed. “Look at people’s posts who inspire you,” says Wyatt, a sophomore from Indianapolis, Indiana.
4. Celebrate—rather than scrutinize—our differences.
Too often when we compare ourselves to others, we see our differences as negative traits. But the truth is, what we might consider to be our imperfections are the traits that make us unique.
Appreciate what makes you unique
“We are one of a kind. We are all unique and amazing in our own way,” says Raquel, a freshman from Brooklyn, New York. Don’t be afraid to show who you really are on social media. For example, share a lyric to a song that speaks to you, or a status update about a school project you’re anxious about. You may be surprised by how many people can relate to what you’re feeling.
5. Be honest with yourself and others.
It’s hard to be vulnerable and to put yourself out there. But when you do so in an authentic way, you’re likely to find other people who can relate to what you’re going through. And this creates more meaningful connections and relationships.
Make an effort to be more authentic in your own posts.
“Be more honest and less ‘filtered’ on social media,” says Marina*. “Show off your natural beauty instead of distorting it.”
Try sharing posts that are raw and real, like a selfie taken when you’re feeling under the weather or when you’re sweaty after soccer practice. Include some words to encourage others to be real in their posts too: #sickselfie #bereal #nofilter #sweatyselfie #thisisme.
When a friend puts up an authentic picture, make sure to give them some positive feedback. A simple “like” or compliment can go a long way. And don’t forget to share this positive reinforcement when you see them in person, too.
Check in regularly with your friends and family.
“Remind yourself that even the most seemingly perfect person has challenges that you may not know about or see,” says Dr. Uhls. Keep in mind that just because someone looks happy in their latest Snap doesn’t mean they feel that way on the inside.
Aim to have more in-person conversations with your friends and family about what’s going on in your life, and theirs. Remember to ask them how their day was, and let them know you’re there for them when they need you.
*Name changed for privacy
6. Remember that it’s OK to feel down sometimes.
While social media can have negative effects, it also brings a lot of positives. It can help us build new friendships and offers a place for us to reflect and relate to one another. And that’s not all. Research shows young adults who spend more time on Facebook are better at showing “virtual empathy” to their online friends. For example, when someone shares a photo of the family cat they had to put down, we tend to offer our condolences with a sympathetic comment.
Build a circle of people you trust
Whether we’re online or offline, we all have our good days and bad days. We need to find ways to cope during the challenging times and ask for help from those we trust when we need it. Make time to connect with people around you and be attentive to your relationships at home, at school, and at work.
Check in with yourself regularly
Make sure you are taking care of your mind, body, and spirit. This may mean going to bed earlier if you’re feeling exhausted, or packing a more nutritious lunch if you lose focus easily during fourth period. It could even mean taking the time to meditate each day.
If you’re feeling low, get up and move. Research shows exercise releases certain neurotransmitters in the brain that alleviate both mental and physical pain. Find an activity or sport you enjoy, and work it into your regular routine.
Practice being aware of emotions, thoughts, and feelings without judgment
Remind yourself that you are in charge of your feelings and no one can make you “feel” a certain way, Dr. Rutledge advises. “Pay attention to what makes you feel good and bad. Keep a social media journal; see how your use matches your mood.” If looking at social media isn’t making you feel good, recognize that and choose to do something else.
Larry D. Rosen, PhD, professor of psychology, research consultant, expert on the psychology of technology, California State University, Dominguez Hills.
Pamela D. Rutledge, MBA, PhD, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, Santa Barbara, California.
Sara Villanueva, PhD, developmental psychologist, author, and associate professor at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas.
Yalda T. Uhls, MBA, PhD, award-winning child psychologist, researcher, and author, Los Angeles, California.
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