Social Media Use and Self-Esteem
Social media, especially social networking sites like Facebook, have become increasingly popular and pervasive in recent years. Facebook has over a billion users around the world. Social networking sites allow users to create electronic profiles for themselves, provide details about their life and experiences, post pictures, maintain relationships, plan social events, meet new people, comment on others’ lives, express beliefs, preferences and emotions as well as fulfill belongingness needs (Ivcevic & Ambady, 2012). Social networking sites can also serve as a basis for social comparisons, self-evaluation or self-enhancement (Haferkamp & Kramer, 2011).
Humans possess a fundamental drive to compare themselves with others. This serves many different functions such as fulfilling affiliation needs (Schachter, 1959), evaluating the self (Festinger, 1954), making decisions (Camerer & Lovallo, 1999), being inspired (Lockwood & Kunda, 1997) and regulating emotions and well-being (Taylor & Brown, 1988).
Upward social comparison occurs when comparing oneself to superior others who have positive characteristics, while downward social comparison means comparing oneself with inferior others with negative characteristics (Wood, 1989). Although upward social comparison can be beneficial when it inspires people to become more like the person they look up to (Lockwood & Kunda, 1997), it often causes people to feel inadequate, have poorer self-evaluations and negative affect (Marsh & Parker, 1984). On the other hand, downward social comparison can make people feel negative (it shows how things could be worse) (Aspinwall, 1997), however, more often it leads to improvement in affect and self-evaluation (Wills, 1981).
Traditionally, social comparisons (in offline contexts) include in-person interactions with others (family members, coworkers, etc.). However, as people use social networking sites more and more, the majority of their comparative information is positive (upward). This is due to the fact that social networking sites provide the perfect platform for meticulous self-presentation by allowing users to select content on their profiles, post pictures, and represent themselves in ideal ways (Rosenberg & Egbert, 2011). Recent studies have found that frequent Facebook users believe that other users are happier and more successful, especially when they do not know them very well offline. So people are comparing their realistic offline selves to the idealized online selves of others, which can be detrimental to well-being and self-evaluation (Chou & Edge, 2012). Moreover, social networking sites also offer distinct information not available in offline settings such as information about the person’s social network (number of people in the network, amount of engagement a person has with network members). So a person with an active social network (receiving many comments and likes) is usually perceived as an upward comparison target in terms of popularity, sociability and perceived social capital (Vitak & Ellison, 2013).
Self-esteem refers to a person’s positive or negative evaluation of the self; i.e. the extent to which an individual views the self as worthwhile and competent (Coopersmith, 1967). Self-esteem is the evaluative emotional component of the self-concept (Heatherton & Wyland, 2003). Also, self-esteem can be conceptualized as both a mostly stable trait that develops over time as well as a fluid state that is responsive to daily events and contexts (Heatherton & Polivy, 1991). As a result of chronic or occasional exposure to upward comparisons on social media sites, there could be a negative impact on people’s self-evaluation and self-esteem. Everyday chronic social media use may affect trait self-esteem negatively, while state self-esteem can also be affected by incidental use. In fact, research shows that people who use Facebook frequently report higher depression rates and decreased well-being (Feinstein et al., 2013).
Two recent studies have looked at the impact of chronic and temporary exposure to social comparison information on social media sites in terms of the impact on self-evaluations and self-esteem. The first study found that people who used Facebook most frequently, had lower trait self-esteem that those who used Facebook less or not at all. Moreover, this negative effect on trait self-esteem is the result of the fact that extent of upward social comparison was greater than that of downward social comparison. What this means is that chronic Facebook users experience a mostly negative impact from comparing themselves to others who are “better” than them in terms of their social media presence. And this has a stronger impact on them than the potential benefits arising from downward social comparisons.
The second study examined the impact of temporary exposure to social networking sites on state self-esteem. The results show that participants experienced lower state self-esteem and poorer self-evaluations after exposure to a person with a high activity social network. Participants also had poorer self-evaluations after exposure to an upward healthy comparison target (someone who presented themselves as more healthy, young, and vibrant). Generally speaking, viewing social media profiles with positive content (upward comparison on health, fitness, active social network) resulted in poorer state self-esteem and more negative self-evaluations.
While social media can be a wonderful tool, offering access to information about a wide range of people and allowing unlimited networking opportunities, there is a potential downside to frequent social media use. As people use social media sites in their everyday life, they risk overexposure to upward social comparison information that can have a cumulative negative effect on their well-being. Moreover, when people with low self-esteem use social media sites to express themselves in what seems like a safe environment (Forest & Wood, 2012), they could get into a vicious cycle of receiving some social support but also being exposed to constant upward social comparison, which may impair their self-esteem further.
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