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  • Olivia Sanders
    Olivia Sanders

    Trouble with Upward Comparison on Social Media: Harms to Body Image, Self-Esteem, and Psychological Well-Being

    What has been lurking in the depths of our social media feeds? The stories and images we project, the measures of success and beauty, the unexpected and often tragic comparisons we make to one another - these are all considerations that played a role in an increasingly more common occurrence on the internet - 'upward comparison'.

    Though relatively new to the popular lexicon, and almost too easily glossed over in discussion, this insidious behavior is having serious implications on how people perceive themselves and others. Research is increasingly uncovering alarming effects to body image, self-esteem, mental health and psychological well-being resulting from those who engage in upward comparison. Let’s take a closer look at what upward comparison is, how it impacts individuals, and practical steps that can help mitigate any damage that may arise due to exposure.

    At its core, upward comparison is a type of comparison that occurs when individuals measure their own accomplishments or value against someone else’s perceived high level of success, attractiveness, popularity, ability, or other characteristics they find important. This measure is often done unconsciously, with individuals frequently unaware of any potential implications from the comparison.

    Social media has been cited as one of the primary culprits for widespread exposure to upward comparison. As platforms like Instagram and Facebook gain ubiquity world-wide, "users may only be exposed to unique and carefully-curated feeds of idealized selfies, success stories, and displays of wealth, which can often lead to feelings of envy and depression." These feelings can have a compounding impact over time, leading to poorer psychological well-being, negative self-perception, and more.

    Studies conducted on upward comparison focused on adolescents found that the more often they compared themselves to the seemingly idealized images and narratives of others, the more they reported negative body image and lower self-esteem than their counterparts who were less exposed to these platforms or engaged differently with them. Meanwhile, adults reported higher levels of anxiety and lower levels of happiness after exposure to images and stories of others in similar age groups. While not definitive of cause and effect, these studies indicate how powerful of an influence social media can wield in individuals’ lives, and how damaging upward comparison can be.

    It is essential that individuals of all ages, but especially children and adolescents, understand the dangers of engaging in upward comparison, including negative impacts to their overall mental health and wellbeing. Practicing self-care such as limiting the time spent on social media, regularly engaging in positive activities, and becoming more aware of any potential triggers for harmful thoughts can help individuals better regulate and manage their exposure. we need to become more mindful about how we view ourselves and others. We should strive to focus on developing healthier processes for gauging a sense of self-worth–processes that avoid triggering destructive thought patterns from engaging in comparison–if we want to mitigate the harms associated with this behavior.

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