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Leading psychology researcher says social media comparison affects mental health of users


Jessica Nelson
3 May 2019

Social media users are being urged to avoid excessive 'upward comparison' to protect themselves from anxiety, discontent and hopelessness sneaking into their lives.

This is the advice from Dr Desirée Kozlowski, a lecturer and researcher in psychology at Southern Cross University, who has a PhD thesis on social perception.

The university has just been ranked number one in Australia for psychology and was the only institution to be rated above 90 per cent, according to the latest national student feedback survey.

Dr Kozlowski said humans were a social species and social comparison played a role in working out where we fitted into society. However, too much upward comparison on social media could have a detrimental effect on our mental health.

“With social media, we’re exposed to more people doing more great things, or looking fabulous, or owning impressive things, whose kids are having huge successes and so on,” she said.

“That can result in us feeling that we’re missing the mark in some way — that we’re of less value — and that is associated with lower psychological wellbeing.”

Dr Kozlowski said it was important to note that social comparison came in two flavours — upward and downward comparison.

“On the positive side, upward comparison can provide inspiration and examples of how to achieve what we want,” she said. “It’s aspirational but with too much upward comparison, we have things like discontent, anxiety and hopelessness sneaking in.”

The researcher said on social media, the achievement was often removed from the effort.

“We might see that photo of a very fit, gorgeous person and despair, thinking, ‘I’ll never look like that’.

“But if we saw that person working out at the gym for hours every day, eating in a highly restricted way, having long sessions at the solarium, and spending 90 minutes in the makeup chair before the photo shoot, we might think, ‘Who needs that anyway? I’m much better off the way I am’.”

Dr Kozlowski said downward comparison, on the other hand, involved comparing ourselves to others who were less well-off or in a worse situation than us.

“This can make us feel better about ourselves and can result in feelings of empathy and goodwill,” she said.

“In real life, we’re more likely to be exposed to people who are more and less well-off than ourselves. But social media — with its carefully curated, airbrushed and edited versions of reality — skews our exposure toward upward comparison.

“Being aware of this can help us to seek out a more normal balance,” she said.

“We might also want to consider how we present ourselves online. There’s a small movement towards acknowledging our struggles and failures, both small and large, in an effort to bring social media representations more into line with the reality of life.”

The researcher said each person had different needs for social reinforcement.

“Some can’t get enough, while others feel overloaded by even short exposure,” she said.

“Humans are a highly social species and talking, writing or hearing about ourselves is a particularly rewarding social experience: it activates the same pleasure centres of the brain as sex and other pleasurable activities,” she said.

“Of course, the advent of social media has meant that we now have an endless supply of social contact at our fingertips.

“That’s a big change in a short time and it’s still very new. As individuals and as a society we are just beginning to navigate our way through this new digital landscape.

“We’ll make mistakes as we go, but hopefully we’ll learn the most successful ways to engage with these technologies,” Dr Kozlowski said.

This article was originally published in the Gold Coast Sun Community Newspaper on 01/05/2019