How Social Media hurts our self-esteem ...and what we can do about it


Social media. It’s a huge part of our lives and yet while we may feel more connected to others, we can also feel concerned about missing out on what is going on.

 A recent survey conducted by the Australian Psychological Society[1] found that found that:

  • Adults averaged 2.1 hours each day on social media, whereas teens spent around 2.7 hours each day.
  • 23% of adults, and 56% of teens, are considered heavy social media users (connecting upwards of 5 times each day).
  • Positives identified by social media users were feeling included or connected to like-minded others, strengthening relationships, and enriching professional opportunities.
  • Negatives associated with social media usage included a fear of missing something if not connected, difficulties relaxing or sleeping after time on social networking sites, and feeling burnt out from constantly being connected.


Why would self-esteem suffer as a result of social media? Well, a social psychologist in the 1950s called Leon Festinger identified that [2]:

  • We feel a desire to evaluate ourselves in most areas of our lives (what we do, how we live, how we think, how we feel)
  • We prefer to use objective criteria to make these evaluations
  • When the objective criteria aren’t available, we rely on making comparisons with others
  • When comparing ourselves to others we look to people who are similar to us

So, if we’re wondering how we are going at work or in life we look to others our age and gender, with similar life experiences, and one prime way in which we do it is via social media.  Unfortunately, one of the prominent negative side-effects of social media that we see in our clinical work is lowered self-esteem, and recent research on Facebook users found that:

  • Those who tend to engage frequently in social comparisons tend to use Facebook heavily (compared to those less likely to engage in social comparisons), and tend to feel worse about themselves.[3]
  • Those who tend to engage frequently in social comparisons tended to engage in ‘upward comparisons’ (comparing yourself to people you believe are superior to you) on Facebook, which led to lower self-esteem.[4]


We can all take the following simple steps to limit the impact of social media on our wellbeing.


1.      Disconnect for a while

Have friends who have fallen off the Facebook perch? Tuned out from Twitter? How do they feel? What is it like for them to not feel a need to constantly check in? Often we hear about how people find it liberating to be disconnected from what others are doing.


2.     Limit our use of social media

Find it hard to disconnect altogether? Or use social media as part of your work role? Try limiting your use of social media instead with the following suggestions:

  • Decrease frequency of checking by setting a goal to connect to once every couple of hours rather than at any spare moment. 
  • Limit the number of platforms used, for example staying on Pinterest to find ideas for your next project, but cutting out Instagram instead. Or, using LinkedIn for work but forgoing Facebook instead.
  • Alternatively, set limits on social media use around certain activities, such as the morning jog with friends, the half hour before bedtime, and yes, at the movies.


3.    Think of the process of posting

Sometimes we look at photos on social media of our friends looking fabulous as they're about to step out their door and head to yet another coffee catch-up. Of course, this happens to be at the very same time that we're hanging around in our sweatpants on a day when we're cleaning the house. Naturally, when comparing these two scenarios we're more than likely to come off feeling worse.

Let's take a step back and think of our own process of posting a photo on Facebook or Instagram. It may look something like this:

  • Choose something 'newsworthy' to share. (No, cleaning the house isn't likely to be top of that list.)
  • Set up the shot by considering the background that’ll photograph well.
  • Try a variety of angles in the hope that one will be a winner, and stand just that little bit straighter for the photos.
  • Take a dozen or so photographs and choose the best one.
  • Maybe crop/filter/Photoshop away before you post.

So, is it possible that the photos that we see on social media have undergone the same process? That is, if we carefully curate what we show the world so that they see the best version of ourselves, is it possible that this is what we see of others? 


4.    Checking our thoughts

With social media we often just read see a post and assume that we know the entire story.  That others have better lives that are more exciting/fulfilling/fun/enriching than ours. The reality, however, is nicely summed up as follows:

"No one is as happy as they seem on Instagram" - Alexa Chung

Yes, when we see someone looking fabulous and having a great time it's all to easy to assume that this is what their life really is like. We tend to lose a bit of perspective by extrapolating what we see from one single photo and believing that this is their reality.

We also tend not to consider that different people have different priorities in life. So, while you see your friend on yet another exotic holiday, is it possible that they live at home and have decided to spend their pennies on holidays and experiences whereas you have focused on saving for a house?

Are we forgetting that we have different roles and responsibilities from our friends? That is, are we comparing our friend's single-and-ready-to-mingle lifestyle with our married-with-young-and-rowdy-children lifestyle?

Gaining perspective by checking our thoughts is a sure-fire way to dampen our social comparisons and cushion our self-esteem. 


The bottom line is that to help protect our self-esteem from social media let's learn to put what we see into context, and learn to set limits on our social media usage.



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[1] Australian Psychological Society (2015). Stress & wellbeing: How Australians are Coping with Life. Australian Psychological Society.

[2] Cialdini, R.B. (1995). Principles and techniques of social influence. In A. Tesser (ed.). Advanced Social Psychology (pp.257-281). New York: McGraw-Hill Inc.

[3] Vogel, E.A. et al. (2015). Who compares and despairs? The effect of social comparison orientation on social media use and its outcomes. Personality and individual Differences, 86, 249-256.

[4] 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, 206-222.