Online social comparison and positive self-image

Jed Foundation

It's human nature to compare yourself to others. But for young people who are busy figuring out who they are and where they fit into the world, these comparisons can be particularly fraught. Whether they're in the classroom, on a sports team or using social media, teens may find themselves – consciously or unconsciously – comparing their appearance, relationships, emotions, lifestyle, and skills or abilities to those of others. If they perceive that they don't measure up, it can have negative effects on their emotional well-being. Experts from The Jed Foundation point to research that shows that unchecked, consistent negative social comparisons can lead to feelings of low self-esteem, loneliness, poor self-image and life dissatisfaction.

The Jed Foundation has developed guidance on managing social comparison both on and offline. We encourage you to share and discuss the following tips with your teen to help them check in with their emotions surrounding social media and allow you to develop – together – habits that empower positive self-image.

Managing social comparison on social media

  1. Maintain perspective. No one post can tell you everything about what's going on in someone's life. People can filter or edit their posts to present a certain image of happiness, and accounts are sometimes carefully curated to only show you what they want you to see. Think critically when looking at images and messages, and remember that what you see posted by others is just one small part of their story.
  2. Dial into your feelings. Notice how different content makes you feel. What content inspires you and makes you feel good, and what content has the opposite effect? By focusing on how content makes you feel, you can shape your social media experience in a way that brings you enjoyment and value.
  3. Perform routine account maintenance. Go through the list of accounts you follow and think about unfollowing any accounts that make you feel bad. Doing this periodically can help you open up space for new accounts that lift you up. If you don't feel comfortable unfollowing an account, you can mute them instead, which will keep you from seeing their content.
  4. Be social on social media. Research shows that active use of social media — interacting with content and people — can lead to feelings of connection and belonging, and boost your mood. By comparison, passive use of social media – endless scrolling and no interaction with friends and family – can bring you down, leaving you feeling lonely or disconnected. Nurture social connection while using social media. Reach out to friends, engage with content that spreads joy, and cultivate connections with the people you care about.
  5. Take breaks when you need it. Sometimes, the best advice is just to put the phone down or walk away from the screen. Everyone is different, so the right amount of time to spend on social media is not the same for everyone, but there are tools that you can use to help you find balance. If you're dialled into your emotions, and noticing that you're feeling negatively about being on social media, it's OK to step away.

Supporting a positive self-image on social media

  1. Take control. Research shows that social media stays interesting and beneficial when your feed shows a diverse representation of people from different cultures, backgrounds and appearances. Look for and follow accounts and people who help you feel inspired, supported and curious.
  2. Share your authentic self. What you choose to share can have an effect on both you and the people who see your posts. Before you post, ask yourself: What are my reasons for sharing? Am I being true to myself? Creating and posting content that reflects the entirety of who you are – your passions, interests, cultural heritage and qualities – will result in a more positive social media experience for you and your followers.
  3. Engage in positive and compassionate self-talk. It isn't fair to you to compare yourself to someone else's curated image on social media. Notice when you find yourself doing it, and practise interrupting those thoughts with kind thoughts about yourself. So for example, if social media comparisons are getting you down about yourself, try and repeat three things that you like about yourself, or compliments that other people have given you.
  4. Practise gratitude. Try to shift your focus to be on what you do have in your life instead of what you perceive you lack. This kind of gratitude doesn't come naturally for everyone. It can take a conscious effort, but it's rewarding work. It can help minimise the impacts of negative social comparison, and help you feel good about where – and who – you are.

If your teen is struggling to say something positive about themselves, step in and tell them what you love about them! Encourage them to ask a friend for positive input, or to put it another way, ask them: what kind or positive things would they tell someone else who was feeling bad about themselves?

Final thoughts for parents and guardians

What prompts social comparison is personal and nuanced. Research shows that where we go online and what we each bring to the platform (such as motivations for being there, level of self-confidence and how you feel that day) affects how we respond to content. Even the same content can leave us feeling differently depending on our mood, recent experiences and reasons for visiting particular sites. This means that these tips are not universal and are meant to be a guide for further discussion with your teen.

As a parent or guardian to a teen, perhaps the most important thing you can do is start the conversation and listen with curiosity and compassion. Help them understand how important it is to pay attention to how being on social media makes them feel. Being agitated, even subtly, is a sign that it's time to get off social media and do something else. Let your teen know that you're there for them and that you're always open to conversations about how they are engaging with social media (the good, the bad and everything in between!).

Remind your teen that there is so much more to them than could ever be seen on social media. Tell them what you love about them, and how impressed you are by who they are. If you can cultivate in your teen a resilient sense of self, it will serve them well throughout their entire life.

Finally, if you continue to be concerned about your teen, know that there are more resources out there to help you on this journey. Discover trusted mental health resources and providers here.

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