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What to Do When Social Media Make You Miserable

Research points to strategies when you can't stop the comparisons.

Jacob Lund/Shutterstock
Source: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

What motivates you to browse the updates on your favorite social networking site? Is it to gain information about people you don’t see that often or to exchange pleasantries? Or do you regard Facebook and Instagram as ways to show yourself off to your best advantage?

Let’s assume that, in a rational world, people try to maximize their positive emotions, and so will use social media in ways to promote their happiness and feelings of high self-esteem. Therefore, they shouldn’t spend a lot of time drifting around in a sea of show-off posts from those they don’t even know all that well. People should also, if we follow this line of reasoning, use their social media sites to alleviate the stress of their everyday lives. We can be transported to Bora Bora or just to a favorite hangout near home by checking out the online antics of our social-media pals.

We also know, however, that people will engage in a variety of masochistic activities on their social media sites: As counterproductive as it may seem, we are drawn to posts that show our friends doing things we’re not (“Fear of Missing Out,” or “FOMO”). Many of us are also drawn to following the exploits of our online contacts as they prance around the sunny shores of Bora Bora, wondering why we're stuck at home with no alternative but that local hangout.

Based on the sensible idea that social media users should eventually give up in disgust when networked friends do nothing but make them feel bad, Sangii University’s Myungsuh Lim and Ehwa Womans University's Yoon Yang (both in Korea) teamed up (2015) to find out what really goes on between your reading of a post and your decision to push the quit button.

According to Lim and Yang, reading our friends' posts leads us to engage in the social comparison process, in which we evaluate how we stand in relation to all those people posting about their exploits. There are two forms of social comparison: In upward social comparison, your point of reference is people who are doing better than you, which leads you to try to figure out how to improve yourself. In downward social comparison, you’re trying to make yourself feel better by seeing how much better you are than everyone else.

Facebook is changing the way social comparison operates because it tends to bring out the bragger in all of us. Your followers, rather than seeing you as someone they aspire to be like, start to feel that there’s something wrong with them. Fortunately, no one is forcing them to remain on the site, and in fact, the less happy your followers feel, the more quickly they’ll switch from your post to someone else’s, or to another site altogether. As Lim and Yang note, “The exponential growth of online SNSs has required people to become cognitive misers for rapid decision making” (p. 301).

What is the sequence of events that leads people to decide to discontinue social-media use when confronted with information that makes them feel inadequate? According to Lim and Yang, the emotions that come into play are shame and envy. You’ll experience shame when you feel worthless, inadequate, and humiliated. Envy occurs when you want what someone else has, in terms of accomplishments or possessions.

As a result of experiencing these negative emotions, social media users can either decide to switch off the offending feed and go somewhere else (“switch intention”) or to feel they just can’t take it anymore (“burnout”).

Using an online sample of 446 Korean university students, most in their early 20s, Lim and Yang examined the effect of negative social comparison on the emotions of shame and envy. In turn, they examined further how these emotions would predict the decision to discontinue social media use either due to switch intention or burnout.

The findings showed that unfavorable social comparisons, in which you feel inadequate compared to your Facebook news feeders, tended to provoke envy slightly more than they provoked shame. Feeling the emotion of envy led users, in turn, to decide to switch and go to another newsfeed or a different social-media platform altogether. Shame, for its part, provoked burnout, or feelings of exhaustion and defeat.

Feeling ashamed of yourself, then, can lead you to become demoralized and hopeless. You’ll conclude that you’ll never be as good as the people in your social-media feed. If you feel envious, in contrast, you’ll just turn off the offending posts and go somewhere else to amuse yourself rather than to beat yourself up for your own inadequacies.

Between switching and giving up, it seems clear that switching is a more adaptive response to the negative social comparison that Facebook can unfortunately stimulate. As Lim and Yang conclude: “SNS users should therefore examine their SNS usage and take care to not experience helplessness or online depression via active methods, such as blocking or distancing users who make them feel inferior” (p 308).

There may be a kind of addictive quality to our tendency to watch what our Facebook friends are doing even though their posts make us feel bad about ourselves. However, as this study shows, it’s important to just say no.

The upshot: If social media are making you feel lacking in important qualities, it’s unlikely that you’ll put these emotions to good effect, such as trying to motivate yourself to do better. Instead, go ahead and do what the envious do: Switch them off. And then, go out and explore relationships in real life, in which people are more likely to share their true feelings rather than simply trying to impress an online audience. It’s by sharing real experiences, not those manufactured and projected onto social media, that will help you realize the fulfillment that honest social networking can provide.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.


Lim, M., & Yang, Y. (2015). Effects of users’ envy and shame on social comparison that occurs on social network services. Computers In Human Behavior, 51(Pt A), 300-311. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2015.05.013

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015