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February 07, 2023

For a great many tweens and teens, social media has come to play an increasingly big role in their lives. A 2018 survey found that 95% of teens have access to a smart phone and 45% report going online constantly.i  

With adolescent development oriented so much around the peer group, social media offers a powerful way to feel connected to what’s happening with friends, acquaintances and the peer community — even to the larger world outside their particular social universe. But there’s one aspect of social media use that has researchers and child development experts concerned: the largely negative effect of social comparison. 

It’s inevitable that young users of social media, seeing the curated photos of happy people enjoying themselves at parties and celebrations, on family vacations and other special events, will ask themselves how their lives compare. (Adult users of social media make the same comparisons.) Researchers have found that women who wanted to change some aspect of their appearance reported being in a more negative mood after viewing Facebook compared to women exposed to a website without appearance-related content. Viewing online photos of other women seemed to stimulate dissatisfaction with face, hair or skin.ii With teenagers notoriously self-critical about their looks, it’s reasonable to think that social media exposure can have a similar effect on them. 

In another study, researchers found that those who spent greater amounts of time on social media were more likely to make upward comparisons — comparing oneself to those who appear to be doing better — rather than downward comparisons — comparing oneself to those who appear to be doing worse.iii iv 

Upward comparison has always occurred among peer-conscious teenagers. Can parents mitigate the unwelcome effects research has identified? Perhaps educating our kids about the pitfalls of upward comparison might inoculate them against some of those effects. We can talk with our sons and daughters about how people curate their online image to look good — to themselves and to their peers — and how that curated image is usually very different from reality. We can discuss how the impulse to look good in the eyes of others drives us to omit from social media our most disappointing, boring, and embarrassing moments. And we can occasionally ask to let us scroll with them through their social media feeds, offering a gentle but incisive running commentary about what we see, and especially what we don't see. It's all part of educating our kids in how to be thoughtful and discerning consumers of the social media that permeates their lives.  

References & Citations

i Anderson, M. and J. Jiang. “Teens, social media and technology 2018.” Pew Research Center, May 31, 2018. 

ii ii Fardouly, J., Diedrichs, P.C., Vartanian, L.R., & Halliwell, E. (2015). Social comparisons on social media: The impact of Facebook on young women's body image concerns and mood. Body Image, 13, 38-45. doi: 10.1016/j.bodyim.2014.12.002. 

iii Steers, M.N., Wickham, R.E., & Acitelli, L.K. (2014). Seeing everyone else's highlight reels: How Facebook usage is linked to depressive symptoms. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 33(8), 701-731. doi: 10.1521/jscp.2014.33.8.701. 

iv 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. doi: 10.1037/ppm0000047.