Seven years ago, I wrote an article about the dangers of social media (namely Instagram) on our mental health. Fast-forward to today, and here I am, still scrolling late at night, comparing myself to other people. It’s the same every night: I go to bed in despair of my life, my eyes square from endless screen time.
Then comes the disbelief—how have I just wasted an hour, stuck in some digital hole, on the page of someone I don’t know and will probably never meet? I put my phone away, swearing off Instagram forever. Cut to 7am. The alarm goes off, I pick up my phone and the cycle begins again.
It’s well documented that people are spending more time on social media. In fact, globally, we’re on it for 145 minutes (that’s nearly two and a half hours) a day. Of course, we go on social media for myriad reasons: from showing our support and spreading awareness for vital causes and campaigns, to discovering support groups and like-minded people and staying connected with friends and family—it has proved a lifeline for many in the pandemic. But I defy anyone who hasn’t gone online (for whatever reason) and been sucked into some imaginary dance-off between you and a friend, celebrity, or complete stranger—someone thinner, funnier, “better looking” or “more successful” than you.
An intrinsic need to compare
According to psychotherapist Rebecca Sparkes, it’s human nature to compare ourselves to others. “The human brain is wired to compare ourselves to other members of the species,” she says. “It was a primitive way of keeping ourselves safe. We needed to constantly evaluate our peers—are they better than us? Do they have potentially greater physical power or esteem in a hierarchy? Who is a threat to us, with whom do we need to forge an alliance to make ourselves safe?”
These days, the stakes aren’t quite as high. But as Dr Adrian Meier, assistant professor of communication science at the Friedrich-Alexander University in Germany, argues, the sentiment remains the same. “Social comparison is deeply ingrained in our psyche. We want to know how we’re doing compared to our peers.”
But what happens when we don’t measure up? Where in primitive times we had only our immediate community to contend with, today we have access to people all over the world, which means social comparisons are taking place at an unprecedented rate and scale. Furthermore, we’re not just comparing ourselves to other people, we’re comparing ourselves to optimised versions of other people. Thanks to not so primitive tools such as photo-editing apps Facetune and Photoshop, we can accentuate and edit all the things we like about ourselves and delete all the things we don’t. It’s no wonder we feel we cannot compete: the game is rigged.
And, it’s having a devastating effect on our mental health—from increased anxiety, depression and low self-esteem to problems with appearance, body image and identity—as people lose their grip on who they are, what they like and what they have achieved. “When we’re comparing our true reality to other people’s rosy, Instagrammable lives, our own shortcomings begin to stand out,” says Cambridge University mental health researcher Dr Olivia Remes. “This can make you feel dissatisfied about your own life, inferior and depressed.”
From models to influencers, it happens to everyone
Boasting one million followers on Instagram, influencer and many more things besides, Camille Charriere embodies many things that a lot of women want: she has impeccable style, good hair, a picture-perfect house, goes to all the right parties (remember them?), gets sent lots of clothes—and is paid to wear them—runs a successful fashion podcast, and is working on a TV show. And yet, she often finds herself whiling away 145 minutes a day comparing herself to other people. Influencers: they’re just like us.
“It’s not something I do consciously, but rather is the insidious side-effect of a life spent endlessly scrolling[for work],” she writes in an email. “On a bad day, these thoughts can spiral into a negative mindset, leading me to feel demotivated and low, convinced that my own achievements count for nothing and that everyone is doing a better job at life than I am.”
This is something even model and Vogue cover star Edie Campbell can relate to. “I wouldn’t say I necessarily compare myself to people on Instagram, but I probably compare my life to other people’s,” she writes. “Or at least, what you can see of other people’s. Which is weird, and pointless. I don’t think it’s very useful to be told so much, all the time, about other people’s lives. It’s like being forced to listen to annoying conversations you wish you weren’t part of but can’t seem to leave.”
What’s the solution?
On some level, it’s comforting to know that, as humans, we’re hardwired to compare ourselves to others—no matter how many followers we have or how many magazine covers we’ve been on. But on the other hand, as it’s so ingrained in our psyche it’s unlikely we would be able to stop, even if we wanted to—as we know, social media can be highly addictive. So, what can we do to help?
Of course, we could all throw away our phones or—in a slightly less dramatic move—delete Instagram altogether, but then we wouldn’t be able to reap the multitude of benefits the platform has to offer—something which Charriere is not prepared to do. “The pandemic has really shown us how powerful and useful social media can be when used right,” she says. “I get a lot of joy and inspiration from spending time online. On a good day, I would even argue [these comparisons] motivate me to work harder.”
This is something Dr Meier is also keen to point out. He believes that not all comparisons are bad, especially when used for self-improvement (as motivation) or as a means of self-enhancement, by emulating things that have worked well for others and avoiding the things that haven’t. “Both of these types of social comparison can be beneficial for the self,” he argues. “For instance, we can feel inspired by others who do better, or feel better about ourselves after comparing to those who do worse.”
But, realistically, this is not what’s going through your mind late at night when you’re poring over Bella Hadid’s latest selfie. A way of getting around this is by being strategic about who you follow. Let’s call it the Marie Kondo method. It’s certainly been a help to Campbell. “Anyone who doesn’t bring me joy or makes me inwardly go ‘ugh’ gets muted, or unfollowed,” she says. It’s a clever way to stay connected, keep inspired and filter out the bad bits.
Sparkes recommends taking a measured approach to all things social media, including regular breaks from the app, with the caveat that when we do go online we should always remember that what we’re seeing isn’t necessarily real. She also recommends strengthening real-life relations. “The stronger the face-to-face connections are in a person’s life, the less vulnerable they will be to the projected images of social media.”
Obviously, in a pandemic, this can be challenging, so Dr Remes advises using social media to strengthen our bonds: “It is better for us to be active, rather than passive contributors on social media platforms. For example, sharing something with a friend on Instagram, actively messaging those who are close to you can be better for mental health than passively scrolling or looking at people’s profiles.”
Meanwhile, offline, she recommends doing things that give you a sense of fulfilment or leave you feeling energised. It’s true. When I think about all the times I end up knee-deep in someone else’s best life, it’s usually because I’m already feeling a bit lacklustre about my own—albeit only fleetingly.
So, take time away, unfollow triggering accounts, use Instagram to connect with friends, keep in mind that what we’re seeing isn’t necessarily the full story, but also, as Charriere points out, remember that “we all grow at a different pace, so all reach different milestones at different ages.”
Something to bear in mind the next time you (and I) go scrolling.