Social media is now a hugely popular and pervasive tool among all age groups. Facebook currently has over 1.3billion users worldwide, and instagram over 300 million. Of these users around half are female and under the age of 25. But what impact might this new obsession be having on its users? There has been a lot of talk about the impact of social media on mood, body satisfaction and life satisfaction, but now for the first time there is some evidence as to the potential detrimental effects of what has become a new norm.
A number of correlational studies have previously made links between increased social media use and body image dissatisfaction, low mood, and a number of other psychological conditions. These correlations have been found across various age groups from pre teenage to university age. (see. Fardouly et al., 2015 for a summary). What we dont know from correlational studies however is whether it is social media resulting in increased psychological distress, or whether increased psychological distress makes people turn more readily to social media.
For the first time researchers at The University of the West of England have shown that it is an individuals tendency to compare themselves to others that is likely to determine whether social media use has a positive or negative impact. The tendency to compare yourself to others is known as social comparison. Individuals can socially compare themselves to others on a number of dimensions including status, appearance, satisfaction and life experience. With 70 million photographs posted instagram every day, and over 10 million photographs added to Facebook per hour, there is a lot of material to which social media users can socially compare themselves.
Jasmine Fardouly and colleagues, in a paper published in Body Image, 2015, investigated the link between rates of social comparison, social media use and appearance related concerns. They found that the impact of social media is not universal amongst all users. Only those who have a tendency to compare themselves to others are likely to suffer from lower mood or poorer body image after viewing social media images. What this means is that, much as with magazine media images, social media cannot necessarily be tarnished with a universally negative brush. For some individuals though, the impact of constant social media viewing is likely to be contributing to, or at least maintaining, psychological distress or dissatisfaction.
Dr. Bryony Bamford, of The London Centre says “The problem with social media is that it presents a very skewed version of real life – photos can be added with filters, experiences can be embellished, and life can be presented through a rose tinted lens. What that means for individuals who have a tendency to compare themselves to others, is that they are likely to be comparing themselves to a skewed reality of real life’.