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How do our online interactions negatively affect our perception of ourselves?

Have you ever wanted to post a picture on Instagram but ultimately decided against it for fear of receiving a lackluster response or criticism from your audience? Have you ever found that, the more you look at a photo, the more unflattering your body seems to be? Have you ever thought to yourself,

        Ugh, why does my hair look so frizzy?

        This is definitely my worst angle.

        No one’s going to comment on this photo because I don’t look my best.

        Why do my legs look like that?

To anyone who’s ever experienced such a phenomenon, it’s really no surprise that the more we look into it -the more effort we put into posting the “perfect” picture - the more we will find flaws within ourselves that other people, for the most part, won’t even notice at all. So why do we continue to do this?

Societal Pressures and Comparison

Social media is a tool that could be used to express one’s beliefs and values or serves as a place where people find their sense of belonging. However, according to Vogel et al. (2013), social media can also be a tool for self-comparison, where users often measure themselves based on how they stand in contrast  to others. It’s a well-known idea that humans have an innate tendency to compare themselves to each other, but due to the abundance of information available on the Internet nowadays, this tendency is now more prevalent than ever. From the tiniest detail of one’s physical appearance to someone’s entire existence, social media has exposed to us what we were never able to see from each other before. 

Before we go deeper into the topic, it’s important to introduce the two types of self-evaluative comparisons found in human psychology: upward comparison and downward comparison. Upward comparison involves comparing oneself to a figure who is considered superior in terms of financial, intellectual, professional, academic, physical, mental, or any other aspect that one deems significant; on the other hand, downward comparison involves comparing oneself to a figure who is deemed inferior in those aspects. These two types of comparisons have opposite effects, where upward comparison often leads to a feeling of insecurity or inferiority while downward comparison is more likely to make one feel better about oneself. 

Vogel et al. (2014) found that the rise of social media has increased the rate of self-comparison overall. Nevertheless, the trend shows that in an online setting, there seems to be more upward comparison than downward. This means that through social media, people are looking upward more and more while evaluating themselves against people that they perceive as superior. Not really surprising, is it? After all, we’ve all looked through someone’s profile before and wondered: how did you get your hair to look like that? He goes to Harvard? Wow, her face is so flawless. What a wonderful job they have. I wish I looked more like her. As imagined, this trend of upward comparison correlates with lower self-esteem and an overall negative feeling that we all probably have felt at some point,  brewing at the bottom of our hearts when we scrolled through the profile of that really attractive individual who looks nothing like us, or that person who was accepted to the job position we were rejected from. In other words, with the rise of social media, we’re more likely to criticize and underestimate ourselves just because we think someone’s life looks a little more perfect than our own.

Effects of Self-Comparison to Others

Long-term exposure to social media has been linked to disastrous effects on self esteem and mental health. As defined by Stanley Coopersmith in his book The Antecedents of Self-Esteem, self esteem is a measure of how positively or negatively someone views oneself. According to Leary et al., it’s an indication of how one views the meaning of their life and their sense of belonging, as well as serving other crucial functions within our social and personal lives. When our self esteem is impacted, it would inevitably lead to more serious problems.

Multiple studies (Feinstein et al., 2013; Kalpidou et al., 2011; Kross et al., 2013; Mehdizadeh, 2010; Rutledge et al., 2013) have concluded that long-term exposure to the social media platform Facebook is positively correlated with increased depression and decreased overall wellbeing. Feinstein (2013) also found that those who make more comparisons over social media suffer from more significant depressive symptoms. This means that - while social comparison can affect you in various forms - in many cases, these comparisons are negative. These findings aren’t exactly surprising, if you really think about it. When we see an image of what society perceives as the standard of desirability, we often find ourselves criticizing the parts of us that don’t resemble what’s shown on the screen in our hands. With each comparison, we become more and more insecure. Needless to say, such comparative behavior has a massive potential to bring destructive effects on our mental health.

Changing Our Perspective

Now that we know how detrimental it is to compare ourselves to the ideal standards plastered all over social media, how do we stop? After these ideals have been cemented into our minds for so long, it may be difficult to reverse it. Nevertheless, we can begin by changing the way we think about these ideals. Think about yourself, for starters. When you post on social media, do these posts tend to highlight your successes or your failures? Do you snap a selfie of your bad hair days, or do you share photos of your best looks? Think about how difficult it is to be vulnerable about your personal struggles on social media as opposed to posting about the party you’ve just attended with your best friends.

Social media is full of people’s best moments, but that’s all it is: a façade. Reality includes both ups and downs, and what we see on social media often does not paint the full picture of the truth. People post what they want the world to see, and oftentimes, it’s not an accurate depiction of what their life is truly like. But behind those stunning smiles are struggles that we never get to see; behind the picture-perfect charade is a life we know nothing about. Thus, if we can’t see the whole picture, why are we comparing ourselves against fragments of it?

Everyone has felt insecure at some point in their lives, and it’s a natural part of our existence. However, persistent feelings of inadequacy and inferiority should not be ignored. These are notable impacts of excessive self-comparison, and it’s important that we try to limit the damage as much as possible. Remember, social media is not real life; what seems perfect may not always be what it appears to be, and we cannot base how we value ourselves on an inaccurate depiction of staged perfection.

Coopersmith S. (1990). The Antecedents of Self-Esteem. Consulting Psychologists Press.

Feinstein, B. A., Hershenberg, R., Bhatia, V., Latack, J. A., Meuwly, N., & Davila, J. (2013). Negative social comparison on Facebook and depressive symptoms: Rumination as a mechanism. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 2(3), 161–170.

Kalpidou, M., Costin, D., & Morris, J. (2011). The relationship between Facebook and the well-being of undergraduate college students. CyberPsychology, behavior, and social networking 14(4), 183-189.

Kross, E., Verduyn, P., Demiralp, E., Jiyoung, P., Lee, D. S., Lin, N., Shablack, H., Jonides, J., & Ybarra, O. (2013). Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults. PLoS ONE 8(8), 1-6., S. (2010). Self-presentation 2.0: Narcissism and self-esteem on Facebook.  Cyberpsychology, behavior, and social networking 13(4), 357-364.

Rutledge, C. M., Gillmor, K. L., & Gillen, M. M. (2013). Does this profile picture make me look fat? Facebook and body image in college students. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 2(4), 251–258.

Vogel, E. A., Rose, J. P., Roberts, L. R., & Eckles, K. (2014). Social comparison, social media, and self-esteem. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 3(4), 206–222.