Picture this: Your former classmate is vacationing in Italy, sailing around on some mystery mogul's boat all summer with this season's trendiest beveragino in hand. All captured exquisitely and delivered conveniently to your smartphone, ready to make you feel like your life is a crumbling disaster by way of social media comparison.
Social media is a complex machine, and it’s done wonders to amplify marginalized voices and help so many people find community. But there are also real mental health impacts that come along with being tuned in and flooded with images of what the “perfect” life looks like, even if it’s the perfectly imperfect blurry photo dump.
Research suggests social media can have negative effects on our sleep, can increase feelings of depression and anxiety (particularly among young people), and may actually be contributing to loneliness. Plus, sadness, envy, and resentment often come along with social media use, says clinical psychologist and friendship researcher Miriam Kirmayer, PhD, “It can also exacerbate self-criticism and feelings of low self-worth.”
Why we just can't quit comparing
It’s easy to get sucked into a vortex of comparison, to scroll through your feed and come to the false but pressing conclusion that you’re not as smart, funny, beautiful, carefree, or worthy as someone else. Of course, that’s a bold-faced lie. But it’s a pervasive one. And even the most ostensibly secure and #blessed people can fall into this comparison trap and feel like they’re not enough.
That’s because we’re highly visual creatures, and social media is basically designed to broadcast what’s going on in your life in the most visual way possible. But, as a professional photographer with more than a decade of experience capturing memories for families and couples, I can assure you that the story behind the camera is often more complex than what you see on your feed. It’s not like all ecstatic family photos, whimsical weddings, and perfectly-curated shots are intentionally misleading or false (although sometimes they totally are), but it’s only a portion of the truth. If you dig deeper, you’ll find plenty of effort in the making of this narrative, one that tends to obscure the gritty realness behind the scenes—the crying kids, the massive budget, the retouching.
Even when we capture the perfect shot, when it’s posted and the likes start flooding in, life itself carries on, with all its messiness. There are still anxieties about work and relationships, bills that need to be paid, and health concerns that zap our energy and mental space. As someone who sees both sides—the making of a photo and the final product—I know holding my life up against a well-crafted image can be unhealthy and ultimately pointless. And yet, I can still get sucked into the comparison trap when looking at other people’s posts.
This discrepancy can largely be chalked up to us making assumptions about ourselves and others that are typically untrue. “We lack nuance, contextual details, and often the more difficult moments of people’s lives, and so we fill in the gaps with our own (sometimes unhelpful or inaccurate) assumptions,” Dr. Kirmayer says.
But the advice to just log off and live your life is unrealistic (especially when your livelihood, like mine, is wrapped up in this game). All those tips about avoiding the comparison trap entirely aren’t all that helpful. So what’s a chronically online person to do? Here are six expert tips that might help you on this journey:
1. Check in on your mood.
First, check in with yourself to see how social media is impacting your daily life. Clinical psychologist Jacqueline Sperling, PhD, suggests that before you even open an app, you take a second to rate your mood (like: “I’m feeling worried”) on a scale of 1 to 10. After using social media, you can re-rate your mood to see how it changed.
“It’s critical to self-reflect and know when you’re in a space to engage,” Dr. Kirmayer says. So try asking yourself, “Why am I turning to social media now? Is this going to help me meet my needs (to feel less alone, to channel creativity) or am I better off calling a friend or journaling?”
If you tend to feel worse after scrolling, try limiting your screen time or consider a social media break if you’re able to swing that.
2. Engage meaningfully, not mindlessly.
Pay attention to how you use social media, Dr. Sperling advises. Is it active (like research for work or making plans with friends) or passive (like a mindless boredom scroll)? Is it “self-oriented” (updating your avi) or “other-oriented” (ruminating on a specific post or person)? If you’re using it passively and with a focus on others, that can be a recipe for social comparison, she says.
3. Set boundaries and focus on connection.
Set a digital boundary (like maybe not scrolling in bed) and slam that mute button on accounts that make you feel like garbage, Dr. Kirmayer says. Then, if you want to, follow more accounts that post things that align with your values and make you feel like you’re having more meaningful interactions, Dr. Sperling adds.
4. Try to celebrate other people’s wins.
While “highlight reels” don’t tell the whole story, the assumption that everyone is miserable behind the scenes is inaccurate as well. So making yourself feel better by convincing yourself that someone’s life is actually going up in flames isn’t all that effective. It’s not always easy (especially if your high school bully just won the lottery), but try to shift your perspective when folks share positive updates on their lives.
Next time something cool happening to someone else makes you a little upset, see if you can make an effort to celebrate the people you love or the creators you enjoy. Even if you don’t drop a comment, changing the way you think can make a big difference in how much social media might impact you. Plus, positivity tends to come back to us in one way or another, and it’s also a great way to be inspired on your own journey.
5. Prioritize IRL relationships.
Find a balance and shift your focus to relationships and activities outside of social media. “We need that reality check from our real relationships to counteract the unrealistic ideals and expectations,” Dr. Kirmayer says. So create “hard stops,” aka real-life obligations that force you to put! the! phone! down! Free ideas: Call a friend, go run an errand, or try an outdoor hobby.
6. Remember your inherent worth.
Showing yourself more compassion and focusing on your own beauty, strengths, and talents can combat being overly self-critical. “There will always be others who have talents, attributes, experiences, or things that we covet. It’s OK that this is hard. It’s important to validate the feelings that show up,” Dr. Kirmayer says. Remember how great you are by keeping a highlights folder of meaningful feedback from your work peeps, making a collage of your favorite memories with friends, and writing out everything you love about yourself.
By accepting feelings of insecurity, while reminding yourself that you’re valuable just as you are (don’t forget this step!), you can start to break out of the comparison trap. Then, you might be able to use social media in a more positive, compassionate, and productive way.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.