Is Social Comparison on Social Media Detrimental? It Depends on Whether You Are Comparing Abilities or Opinions

Social media comparison based on opinion, rather than ability, is adaptive for youth.

In the digital age, social media makes social comparison easy by providing rich materials for comparison. Social comparison is a self-evaluation process in which people compare themselves with others. Social comparison comes in two forms: comparison of ability and comparison of opinion (see here, here, and here for additional details). Ability comparison is competition-based and thus inherently judgmental. It focuses on determining the superiority or inferiority of one’s performances and achievements, relative to others. Opinion comparison is information-based. It centers on identifying similarities and differences in ideas, values, and attitudes between oneself and others.

Studies of the competition-based ability comparison on social media (e.g., comparison of competence, social skills, popularity, life quality) have consistently found it to be associated with negative psycho-emotional outcomes, such as negative self-views, poor mental health, and low emotional well-being. The ability form of comparison has received noticeable attention, because social media create an environment where users tend to compare themselves with those who seem better off. In contrast, little is known about opinion comparison in the social media context, even though this form of comparison serves important functions, such as helping individuals identify the norms of peers, which may facilitate adjustment to new environments.

In a recent study, my research team studied both forms of social comparison on social media. We surveyed college freshmen once in the Fall semester and once in the Spring semester. We found that freshmen who performed more ability social comparison on social media in the Fall also distanced themselves from identity information and decisions in the same semester. This style of avoiding identity-related information and decisions then predicted a less clear sense of self in the Spring.

In contrast, those who engaged in more opinion social comparison on social media in the Fall were more likely to proactively reflect upon and making decisions about identity in the same semester. Although this proactive style of approaching identity-related issues did not predict better identity outcomes (clearer sense of self and higher self-esteem) in the Spring, it may still be considered an adaptive style given its well-established relationship with various positive identity indicators (see examples in our review). In other words, whereas ability social comparison on social media had negative identity implications, opinion social comparison had associations with an adaptive style of approaching identity.

A major conclusion of our study is that ability social comparison seems detrimental whereas opinion social comparison appears adaptive, likely because the former is competitive and judgmental whereas the latter is informational in nature. The conclusion is consistent with a few other studies. For instance, in one study on university students’ social adjustment to college, my team found that the orientation for ability social comparison had a direct relationship with poorer social adjustment, whereas the orientation for opinion social comparison had a direct relationship with better social adjustment. In a different study, another research team found that Facebook users who had a stronger tendency to perform ability comparison in their Facebook use reported higher levels of envy and depression, which, in turn, were associated with poorer life satisfaction. In contrast, those with a stronger orientation for opinion comparison in Facebook use reported less depression and envy and thus greater life satisfaction. (Although both studies also revealed indirect paths through which the orientation for social comparison of ability would relate to positive outcomes, those findings have not been identified or replicated in other research. Therefore, this post focuses on the differential implications of the two types of social comparison, which seems to be a clear pattern identified across recent publications.)

As social media become an integral part of youth’s lives, information on how to approach social media adaptively is essential for positive youth development in the digital age. It may be worthwhile to teach adolescents how to direct their energy to opinion comparison rather than ability comparison in their social media use. For instance, upon seeing peers’ posts of achievements (e.g., receiving a scholarship or award), instead of judging oneself as being inferior to the peers, one can see it as a learning opportunity, from which one can glean information about how the peers achieved the accomplishments and consider whether one should adopt similar approaches in the future. Social comparison on social media can be beneficial, if the focus is on being informed rather than being judgmental.

By Chia-chen Yang, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor in the Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology and Research at the University of Memphis. Her research focuses on the use of communication technologies by adolescents and emerging adults and its associations with young people’s social development, sense of self, and psychological well-being.

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