Dr. Kirby's Blog

Social Media & How We Perceive Ourselves


How many times per day do you find yourself scrolling through Facebook, picking out the perfect Instagram filter, or testing how clever you can be in 140 characters or fewer on Twitter? Social media has become a big part of our lives—and while there is debate as to whether social media is harmful or beneficial, there is no denying that it has some impact on how we perceive ourselves and the world around us.

How Social Media Impacts Self-Perception

Social media can be a wonderful tool for staying in touch with family and friends, allowing us a peek into their daily lives. It can also cause us to draw comparisons between ourselves and others, and get caught up in negative emotions when our experiences fall short of our friends’.

Social comparison can lead to low self-esteem

Think about the cousin living her #authenticlife in hip coffee shops and picturesque redwood forests on the West Coast. Consider an old friend whose newsfeed is full of darling children, an ideal partner, and a gorgeous house in a stunning rendition of the American Dream. You may often “like” the photos or send well wishes, but according to studies, you may also be subconsciously drawing unhealthy comparisons between their lives and yours. Unfortunately, these comparisons have some negative mental health consequences.

Many studies have linked Facebook with depression, but researchers from the University of Houston were the ones to prove that the social comparison effect is the reason behind that association. As the study describes it, we are comparing our most dull moments to others’ “highlight reels”, and this comparison is increasing depressive symptoms among users.

Interestingly, the study showed an increase in depressive symptoms for any social comparison, whether it was positive, negative, or neutral. This finding is at odds with previous studies that suggested downward comparisons (a comparison where you come out on top) had a positive impact on self-esteem.

Maintaining Perspective

Does this mean you need to shut down all of your social media accounts to maintain a healthy perspective on life? Probably not. Moderation is, of course, beneficial, but social media does indeed have its benefits. The key is to be conscious of how you use it and try to maintain perspective.

Here are some tips for staying grounded while on social media:

  • Monitor time spent online. On average, we are spending 50-60% more time online than we were just a decade ago. Try to cut the cord and be present during activities (even at the cost of missing that great snapshot of your fancy dinner) and limit your social media interactions to certain times of the day.
  • Keep a realistic perspective. Remember that social media shows snippets of life that are fully controlled by the user and, as such, do not accurately represent their full reality. In other words, just because you are not seeing pictures of that exceptional friend with bed-head and smeared makeup does not mean that she spends every waking hour looking perfect.
  • Elevate “In Real Life” interactions. Sure, a “favorite” on a new photo or Tweet feels great, but make sure you are giving in-person interactions more weight than online ones. Your worth is not dependent upon how many followers you have.
  • Decide what social media means to you. Do you maintain your Facebook to check in with long-distance relatives? Is your Instagram account a means for exercising your photography skills? Deciding what role social media plays for you—and sticking with it—can help you manage your expectations and allow you to control how much of an impact it has on you.

The reality is that social media is not going anywhere anytime soon. It has become a powerful tool for engagement among friends, family, communities, and businesses. Moving forward, it is important that we learn to maintain a healthy relationship with social media and find ways to ensure our online interactions are positive and beneficial.

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