Those of us who spend any length of time on social media platforms may be familiar with the gut-sinking, mind-dulling, vaguely anxious feeling that we are being overtaken by the world, and that everyone in it has a happier, more exciting, fulfilling, successful life than we are. Especially at that precise moment, when the sum of our existence takes the form of a figure hunched over a digital device, scrolling, swiping and clicking, even as others are partying, vacationing, smiling at cameras surrounded by friends and family, or eating impossibly colourful meals. Some might be winning awards or achieving high honours of one kind or another in academic or professional spheres, while we sit there, looking on.
Research into social media use suggests that there is a tendency to engage in what is called “social comparison” as we look at these sites and watch what other people are doing — or what they appear to be doing — and constantly judge our own lives against what we see. Over time, this has the effect of making us feel like our own lives are uninteresting and dull, even if the logical part of our brains knows that people only show the best parts of their lives on these platforms.
Of course, social comparison that happens on digital platforms is only an extension of what we do every day, in our offline lives. We feel a pressure to keep up with our peers, and judge ourselves and our actions according to some standard set by society, family or friends — and sometimes the media. Such comparison can have both positive and negative effects. It could lead to “healthy” competition that motivates us to do something better, or to set goals for ourselves that we commit to working towards. As long as these goals are realistic and draw from a good sense of our own abilities, this can be productive. But it can also have the opposite effect, making us feel that we can never quite measure up to the levels we see other people achieving, often leading to depression and a sense of worthlessness. It can shift our focus from the things we could be doing to things that we imagine we should be doing, based on what we see others doing.
I have a little note on the whiteboard in my room that says “I am enough!” Now that might seem to come from self-centredness or even arrogance but what it tells me is that I am responsible for my life — my work, my feelings, my ideas. Even if I take inspiration, advice or support from others, it is ultimately up to me to set my goals and map my path to reach them. It reminds me that while comparisons with others may be motivational, the only comparisons that will really help are the ones between where I was and where I am, or where I am and where I want to be. In short, it is about setting my priorities based on an internal compass.
Social media can be fun; those colourful windows into other people’s lives give one a great way to pass an idle moment. But when it starts messing with your head — on the basis of nothing more than pretty pictures — it is time to pull back and check that internal compass.
The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus.firstname.lastname@example.org