A look at the toxic effects of social media and social comparisons.


Jason Brien.

Social media has ushered in a new era of ‘comparisons or ‘competition’. Our grandparents and great grandparents were limited in the social comparisons they could make. They were limited to comparing themselves against those in their local communities or surrounding areas, those they heard about through folklore, storytelling, reminiscing, etc or people they had read about in books or newspapers (either mythical or real people). Our parents and some of our grandparents were exposed to radio and tv which inevitably exposed them to other significant people of which to envy, emulate or compare themselves against.

Making comparisons in and of itself is not a ‘bad’ or ‘unnatural’ thing to do. When we look at recent and historical figures like Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, etc, etc, we look upon their achievements as something to strive towards. We look at their lives in comparison to ours and we think “Hey, I wouldn’t mind a piece of that”, “Wow. Humans can achieve a lot” or “If I practice hard, I can become a great boxer or tennis player too”. These types of people then become suitable role models. Even everyday ordinary people can become role models like the mother down the road that raised 5 children singlehandedly or the former drug addict who has turned their life around for the better.

These types of social comparisons can be healthy. They are healthy when the number of comparisons we make are limited to 1 or 2 people and we don’t excessively idolise them and forget that they are humans with faults and flaws like the rest of us. Social comparisons are healthy when we don’t shame, ridicule, abuse, demean or belittle ourselves when we fail or when we cannot attain or achieve our goals. These social comparisons are especially healthy when the behaviours, morals, beliefs, etc that the role models espouse are positive, healthy, encouraging, life affirming, etc. Once upon a time, the great role models of our time would have fallen from their pedestals quite quickly once their behaviours, views, etc went against those endorsed by society. People were then encouraged to drop these ‘role models’ as suitable choices for social comparison.

This is not the case with social media. Social media ‘celebrities’ and ‘influencers’ continue to be endorsed, and even become more famous/influential, when they espouse unhealthy behaviours, views, beliefs, etc (e.g., Jake and Logan Paul). This is quite dangerous as ‘ordinary’ people adopt these social media giants as role models, emulate and expand upon their behaviours and become successful in their own right thus continuing the unhealthy cycle. Social media influencers and celebrities promote and endorse ‘one-upmanship’. The ‘anything you can do I can do better’ mentality. Again, this becomes dangerous as the unhealthy mentality filters down to the masses.

Social media has forced modern generations to forcibly ask themselves questions centred around “who am I”? “What makes me special”? “What is my status amongst these 5 billion other people I am exposed to”? Social media has expanded exposure well beyond the boundaries of local communities, surrounding areas, etc. A person in the USA can now compare themselves with a person in India. A person in India can compare themselves against a person in Russia and so on and so on. This increased exposure to others has stripped away a lot of people’s uniqueness and specialness and now they don’t know where they stand within the grand scheme of things.

Thinking of oneself as special or unique is not necessarily a sign or trait of narcissism. To recognise that you are special and unique is the consequence of healthy individuation – the consequence of separating from another (typically the primary caregiver). Thinking of oneself as special and unique allows our unique identity and personality to develop and mature. To recognise that we are separate from others allows us to recognise that we have agency – control over our choices, actions, purpose, meaning, etc. Agency gives us the belief and confidence that it is “I” and not ‘others’ that controls my life and its direction. When we make too many social comparisons, and we allow ourselves to be influenced by too many people, we lose that which is our unique and special ‘I’.

What I mean is, the more special and unique you perceive yourself to be, the more you identify as you, the less you are influenced by others and so your sense of agency is elevated. Healthy agency allows you to maintain boundaries with others so that you are not unduly influenced by negative or unhealthy behaviours or feedback. Healthy agency allows you to continue achieving a goal when others don’t believe in you. This is where unhealthy, narcissistic specialness and uniqueness comes in. People who are pathologically special and unique are not influenced by others. At all. This is not a good thing. We all need to be open and receptive to outside influence to a degree. Agency therefore is a double-edged sword and I will explain how social media distorts it.

At the start, social media takes away (or at the very least reduces) people’s sense of uniqueness and specialness. This lowers their sense of agency – they lose the notion that they have choices, they can impact the world, etc, and so they become easily influenced by others and they compare themselves to others more frequently (they are also more susceptible to government control and one world order conspiracies). These social comparisons lower their self-esteem and makes their egos fragile. What happens when someone has low self-esteem and their egos are fragile? They overcompensate by using narcissistic defences. They will begin to engage in any behaviour which elicits validation, attention, etc in order to raise their self-esteem. Even if the behaviours are destructive, unhealthy, etc.

All of this validation, attention, etc, reaffirms the persons specialness and uniqueness which, in turn, reaffirms their sense of agency. The problem now is that their specialness, uniqueness and agency has become pathological closing them off to ANY outside influence. They adopt the “F you. This is my life and I am going to do what I want to do” attitude. They are not motivated to change their behaviours when society says “enough” and so they remain in the spotlight and so they continue to influence others. Their mere presence on social media continues the whole social comparison cycle and the longer the cycle continues, the more people fall victim to it and the more toxic social media becomes. Of course, not all people who interact with social media is going to fall down this rabbit hole.

Resources.

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02673843.2019.1590851

https://cyberpsychology.eu/article/view/11562/10373

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wpvv_ooqJik

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0731121414536141

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5002400/