Over the past decade, social media has become a prominent part of many people’s lives. People use popular social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, to communicate with friends, receive information, and explore their interests. One of the results of this process is that people trust the content they see on social media and begin to see reality as unsatisfactory. However, not everything published online is true; the difference between what a person tries to seem in social media posts and what they are in reality is sometimes huge.
Social media platforms, particularly Facebook and Instagram, have been widely criticized for allowing people to create idealistic images that affect how others perceive themselves and reality. First of all, social media is full of beautiful images that are unrealistic because they have been adjusted using Photoshop or other digital editing software. Research reports that many young women who use social media regularly develop body image concerns, body dissatisfaction, depression, and eating disorders (Perloff 364). This is primarily because social media exposes people to idealistic female body images that are unattainable in real life (Perloff 363). For example, the process of editing a picture might include removing acne or cellulite, slimming down the body, increasing breast size, and more. Achieving the same appearance in real life requires plastic surgery or expensive cosmetics, and very few people can afford such manipulations. Hence, the images of beauty shared on social media do not reflect people’s appearance in real life but set unattainable ideals for users.
Secondly, because the content on social media is selected by users, social media enables them to create an illusion of a perfect life. In other words, it allows people to hide stressful or unfortunate events while showcasing wealth, prosperity, and wellness (Deutsch). This means that people who use social media do not see the real life of people that they follow but still believe that what they see is real. This leads people to develop dissatisfaction with their own lives since they perceive that others are doing much better than them.
Thirdly, social media can be described as maladaptive since users have certain expectations about the content that they see on social networking sites. People expect to see exclusively positive content on social media, meaning that people have to portray the ideal version of their life there (Deutsch). This characteristic may cause people to dissociate from problems to adhere to other people’s expectations by posting positive posts even when their life is challenging.
Maladaptiveness of social media also has more serious consequences for some users as it may lead to negative feedback from users. Koutamanis et al. explain that social media does not allow for social exploration because of the threat of negative feedback (492). Because people have implicit expectations regarding the content that they see on social media, those who publish negative content or something that does not fit into the promoted idealistic image are bound to face criticism. For example, posting a picture with visible imperfections, such as acne, cellulite, or scars often leads to negative comments from users. This, in turn, causes people to apply tools to edit pictures before publication, thus maintaining the lack of realism on social media in general. More importantly, however, negative feedback affects people’s perception of self and their online communication behaviors. There is research evidence that people who received negative feedback on social media are more likely to increase their social media use to seek positive feedback to compensate (Koutamanis et al. 492).
Because of the nature of social media and the false representation of people on there, it also influences users’ sense of identity. This is particularly because social media allows people to engage in social comparison more actively than they do in real life. Social comparison is a prominent concept in psychology and social studies, which is inevitably connected to people’s identity. Vogel et al. note that humans have an internal drive to compare themselves to others, which serves to fulfill their needs for affiliation with other members of the group (206). Social comparison can also be used to make decisions, regulate emotions, and achieve higher levels of motivation (Vogel et al. 206). However, the primary result of social comparison is self-evaluation, which means that people judge their skills, abilities, and personalities by comparing themselves to other people (Vogel et al. 206). This means that the formation of one’s sense of identity relies on their capacity for social comparison.
In real life, social comparison is usually limited to a person’s close circle of friends, relatives, and coworkers. This means that people mostly compare themselves with those of similar age or social standing, as well as those who have matching interests and abilities. The increased connectivity achieved through social media, on the contrary, means that people can now compare themselves to virtually any other person in the world. Studies show that people who use popular social media platforms actively engage in social comparison more than those who do not use social media or use it moderately (Vogel et al. 206). Taking into account the fact that people tend to share only positive images online, this leads to the increased rate of upward comparisons, which involves comparing oneself to people who are more beautiful, wealthy, and successful in life (Vogel et al. 206).
Scholars note that upward social comparison can have both positive and negative influences on a person. For instance, it can be beneficial when it inspires people to achieve more and become a better version of themselves (Vogel et al. 207). Nevertheless, this is only true for realistic images and stories shared by users online. In other words, reading other people’s success stories and seeing the true results of their hard work can indeed be motivating. Unrealistic images on social media more often cause people “to feel inadequate, have poorer self-evaluations, and experience negative affect” (Vogel et al. 207). This is because the gap between people’s real life and the images they see online is too vast to be inspiring or motivating. People tend to feel as if they could never achieve the same success or beauty. Instead of causing people to doubt social media images, this leads them to perceive themselves as not fitting in or being worse than others. Poor self-esteem, in consequence, has a negative influence on people’s mental health. For example, depression and anxiety proved to be linked to increased use of popular networking sites, such as Facebook (Vogel et al. 207). Both of these mental health problems may stem from people’s dissatisfaction with themselves and their lives, which is inevitably tied to social comparison with other users of social networking platforms.
Additionally, social comparison online also impacts people’s relationships with their romantic partners. On the one hand, couples on social media are often represented in an idealistic way, causing people to feel dissatisfaction with their real-life relationships. On the other hand, social media use can also cause jealousy in people because it allows seeing deeper into people’s private lives. These functions of social media often lead to jealousy and result in partner surveillance, when a person follows their partner’s likes, comments, and followings obsessively (Fox and Warber 3). Finally, social comparison has a negative influence on people because it can trigger a sense of envy, exclusion, and loneliness. Lin and Utz found that posts containing images of things that people found desirable triggered feelings of benign or malicious envy in many users (34). Negative feelings associated with the use of social media have a powerful effect on people’s identity and behaviors.
Another way in which social media impacts identity is by increasing people’s desire to fit in by acting differently. To gain more followers or likes, people often behave differently online than they do in real life. Michikyan et al. found that young adults with low self-esteem often presented their false self or ideal self on Facebook to earn positive feedback rather than their real self (61). Consequently, people who choose to portray a false or idealistic image of themselves online may lose the sense of who they truly are, leading to real-life problems in relationships.
The primary function of social media is to create opportunities for communication among individuals, which has both positive and negative effects on users. Bala notes that on social media, people often have over a hundred friends, whereas their real-life connections groups are much smaller (4). This means that social media could potentially be a source of social support for users. Nevertheless, this social support is often an illusion because people on social media act differently than they do in real life. For this reason, people might feel like they have successful relationships with others because of their large social media friend lists, even if they have no close friends in reality.
Still, social media friendships can be mutually beneficial when people use social networking sites to communicate with others through likes, comments, and posts (Bala 3). This creates a sense of social engagement that makes people feel valued and may improve their self-esteem. According to Vogel et al., positive feedback from acquaintances or social media contacts has a beneficial influence on an individual’s self-image, mood, and general wellbeing (212). This information suggests that positive engagement on social media may mediate the negative influence of social comparison and unrealistic images on people’s mental health and self-concept.
Overall, social media has a complex influence on people’s lives, leading to both positive and negative outcomes. The nature of social media allows for it to be a medium for unrealistic images related to beauty, wealth, success, and wellbeing. In conjunction with social comparison, these characteristics impact the self-esteem of people who trust social media posts and apply them to their real life. This can lead to low self-concept, depression, anxiety, and other adverse effects. However, social media also offers space for positive interactions that can have the opposite effect. Based on research, people can experience the benefits of social media interactions as long as they acknowledge not everything they see on social networks is true.
Bala, Kiran. “Social Media and Changing Communication Patterns.” Global Media Journal: Indian Edition, vol. 5, no. 1, 2014, pp. 1-6.
This article examines the changes to communication patterns occurring on social media. In particular, the author notes that social media enabled people to maintain a large circle of connections, even if the number of their real-life friends is low. The article is based on a literature review of previous scholarly publications and was published in a peer-reviewed academic journal, which points to its validity and credibility.
Deutsch, Bob. “Why Everyone and Everything on Social Media Is Fake.” Entrepreneur. 2018, Web.
The article by Deutsch considers the nature of social media, the expectations people have with regards to its content, and the characteristics of relationships on social media. The author analyzes the notion of the idealistic self-portrayal on social media, which relates directly to the research topic. The author’s qualifications make his opinions credible, although checking the validity of information is not possible because it lacks research.
Lin, Ruoyun, and Sonja Utz. “The Emotional Responses of Browsing Facebook: Happiness, Envy, and the Role of Tie Strength.” Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 52, 2015, pp. 29-38.
In this article, the authors present research findings on people’s emotions associated with social media. They found that people have both positive and negative responses to information they see and that many people experience envy while seeing positive content on Facebook. A quantitative research design and the authors’ credentials indicate the validity and credibility of the findings.
Michikyan, Minas, et al. “Can You Guess Who I Am? Real, Ideal, and False Self-Presentation on Facebook among Emerging Edults.” Emerging Adulthood, vol. 3, no. 1, 2015, pp. 55-64.
This work examines real, ideal, and false self-presentation on Facebook through quantitative research. The authors show that most participants reported presenting their real self on Facebook, but those with low self-esteem and a sense of self engaged in false self-presentation. The design of the study is strong, and it was published in a peer-reviewed journal, making the information valid and credible.
Perloff, Richard M. “Social Media Effects on Young Women’s Body Image Concerns: Theoretical Perspectives and an Agenda for Research.” Sex Roles, vol. 71, no. 11-12, 2014, pp. 363-377.
Here, the author examines the relationship between social media and young women’s body image based on a literature review. The information shows the impact of idealistic, airbrushed images on real people. The article is based on a large number of high-quality publications, meaning that the findings have high validity and credibility.
Vogel, Erin A., et al. “Social Comparison, Social Media, and Self-Esteem.” Psychology of Popular Media Culture, vol. 3, no. 4, 2014, pp. 206-222.
This source presents the results of two quantitative studies on social comparison, social networking, and self-esteem. The results identify the positive and negative impacts of social media comparisons on people’s self-esteem. The designs of the two studies have high validity, and the authors have the necessary qualifications and skills to present credible data.