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Before there was Instagram, there was the gym.
Growing up in the ’90s, I didn’t spend hours scrolling through the feeds of friends and celebrities, comparing my life to theirs. But 4-5 times a week, after school, I would head over to Cureton’s Gym on Metairie Road and spend hours lifting dumbbells as I silently compared myself to the other gym goers, who I watched out of the corner of my eye as I lifted weights to Jock Jams on my Sony Walkman.
Let me first say that I was a scrawny kid growing up and always challenged with being underweight. This became a huge challenge for me in high school. In college, every day at the gym was a war for me and my friends Ross and James. The only thing we were focused on was lifting more than we had the previous week. James would even wear the same Jesuit Blue Jays shirt over and over because of superstitions about it helping him to bench more. The group of us were there to support each other and to laugh a bit too.
There’s no better way to make yourself feel small than by comparing yourself to others. It’s a habit that makes you doubt your own talents and abilities. Often, even when you receive recognition for those things, you still doubt them, and you may even worry about being exposed as a fraud.
There’s a term for this behavior, which is increasingly better understood: Imposter Syndrome.
We’ve always had ways of engaging in the comparison trap, but with the rise of social media, it’s almost impossible to escape.
At its best, social media can be inspiring. But it can also lead to deeply unhelpful comparisons. You no longer have just the people in your line of sight to contend with—the equivalent of your fellow gym goers—you risk comparing yourself to the entire world.
There are three main types of comparison promoted by social media, and each comes with its own challenges:
- Upward: This is when we compare ourselves to others who are where we’d like to be. The problem is that it can easily make us feel inferior, and with social media, we can feel completely overwhelmed by the amount of comparisons that can be made. It’s like if I tried to compare my progress in the gym to that of every NFL athlete’s progress.
- Downward: This is comparing ourselves to someone who we view as being in a lesser position than ourselves. This may make us feel better about ourselves in the short term, but it also reinforces biases and judgements against others. It can ultimately result in harsher judgements made against ourselves when we encounter setbacks.
- Lateral: Comparison against our peer group. While this might seem harmless, constantly focusing on the image of the lives being lived by our peer group is misleading and unhelpful. People put forward the image of themselves they want you to see, and there’s a lot left behind the curtain. Lateral comparisons may add to feelings of loneliness, isolation, anxiety, and depression.
Whether your point of comparison is fitness or coding, the ability to compare yourself to others has never been so vast, and it has very real emotional implications.
Here are some of the negative impacts social media can have on your life, as well as advice for how to take back control.
1. Social media can lead to feelings of anxiety or depression
It doesn’t require a far mental leap to see how constantly comparing yourself to others might lead to anxiety and depression, as you feel like you’ll never measure up. Comparing your body type to someone else’s—especially a professional athlete or someone whose life is focused around fitness—can only lead to making you feel bad about yourself.
In pre-COVID days (ah, simpler times), it was easy to compare your life to those of people who traveled all the time or appeared to enjoy a lavish lifestyle.
If we’re consistently focused on things we don’t have, can’t afford, can’t easily attain, or simply don’t align with our body type, we can experience deep frustration that can quickly evolve into anxiety and depression.
2. Social media can lead to lost sleep
We all know that an anxious mind can mess with your ability to fall asleep. Have you also noticed how people you see on social media frequently end up in your dreams?
Social media, and our phones in general, are designed to capitalize on behavioral psychology. Their sole purpose is to increase engagement rates. This stimulation can not only keep you awake, but it can add to your anxiety, as social media and phone usage stimulates endorphins and adrenal glands.
3. Social media can lead to low self-esteem
A constant focus on comparison can result in a painful cycle, in which those suffering from low self-esteem or mild depression are more likely to make frequent social comparisons, and these comparisons in turn make them feel even worse. This creates a incredibly negative (and sometimes dangerous) loop.
4. Social media can lead to excessive stress
In fitness, there’s a saying: “You are what you eat.” The same goes for social media. If you’re constantly consuming things that make you feel like you should be something other than what you are, you’re bound to be stressed. If I compare my own fitness journey to that of a guru like Tony Horton, Joel Freeman, or Amoila Cesar, I’m only going to get frustrated.
5. Social media can lead to loneliness
Social media can be very emotionally charged. Take, for instance, the election cycle we’ve just come out of, in which constant attack ads from both parties pushed people to not only vote but donate money.
Social media has made this process so toxic that we are in a state of negative sentiment override. In marriage, this looks like when you get so resentful toward your partner that you begin to hate even the little things, like the way your partner holds their fork, in addition to the bigger issues. The ratio of positive to negative interactions is so off balance that you develop contempt, and this is the same thing that has happened in politics.
To a certain extent, the role models we see on social media can have a positive effect on us, as they can inspire certain positive forms of self-improvement. But this effect can also go too far.
As a therapist, I see clients all the time who are pushing themselves to be like their role models … to drive a certain car, have a podcast, create a life that looks a certain way online, have elite life experiences, focus on self-improvement to the point where they don’t recognize the person in the mirror. At a certain point, you can’t be real, and it’s isolating.
6. Social media cuts down our quality time
We’ve lost a lot of quality time in our lives as a result of our scrolling and our quest for likes: Time to connect with our partner, kids, family; for reading and imagination; for intimacy and connection.
So how can you tell if you need a break from social media, or if you should cut back on your consumption?
It’s really as simple as answering this question: Do you wonder if your time online is making you unhappy?
If it’s a question you ask yourself, then it’s probably your answer. I’d also suggest watching The Social Dilemma on Netflix as it pertains to this exact issue. As a therapist, I see rising levels of loneliness, isolation, depression, and anxiety, and it’s all linked to social media.
Here’s how to cut back:
If you’re interested in putting a little more space between yourself and social media, I think a first good step is to look at how much you use your phone, tablet, or computer. Try keeping a rough log, or reference the screen usage details that are included on most phones these days (such as the Screen Time app on iOS).
Once you see the amount of time you spend on your devices, look at what apps and activities are eating up that time and think about what apps and notifications you can remove to lower temptation and distraction.
Personally, I only use Facebook on my laptop, and I don’t let it send me notifications. I also shut off notifications for many other apps, as well as the ability for social apps to be used over cellular networks. I simply removed the apps that were eating up my time, such as Reddit and Apple News.
Lately, I’ve also been using the iOS Bedtime app to encourage me to turn off my device at a better time.
Another option? Just take a full gadget break. I have a buddy who only turns on his phone a few times a day to check messages. The rest of the time, he focuses on reading, writing, yoga, and self-care.
What are your favorite tips for disengaging with social media? Tweet us and let us know.