There has been a vigorous debate about whether social media use is psychologically harmful. Some studies find it to be relatively innocuous. Others suggest it can be severely damaging. Still others argue that it depends on the way people use the platforms.
New research in the journal Personality and Individual Differences adds some much-needed perspective to this ongoing debate. Specifically, a team of researchers led by Alyssa Saiphoo of Ryerson University in Toronto analyzed the cumulative results of 121 studies to see if they could come to a consensus regarding the relationship between social media use and self-esteem.
Their results suggest that social media use likely causes more harm than good.
"The popularity of social networking sites has prompted researchers to investigate the relationship between social networking site use and various psychological variables, one being self-esteem," state Saiphoo and her team. "There is a large literature, theoretical and empirical, supporting a relationship between these two variables; however, the conclusions are mixed. [...] Overall, we found a small, significant, negative relationship between social network site use and self-esteem, suggesting that higher levels of social network site use are associated with lower levels of self-esteem."
To arrive at this conclusion, Saiphoo and her team gathered the studies published on social media use and self-esteem over the past two decades. This amounted to 121 studies and 91,462 participant observations. The researchers then computed the average correlation between self-esteem and social media use across all 121 studies. They found this value to be negative (r = -0.08), meaning that higher social media use was associated with lower self-esteem.
The researchers speculate that this has to do with a few different factors. First, they suggest that people who use social networking sites might be doing so at the expense of their in-person relationships. In other words, people are trading strong and supportive real-life relationships for more tenuous virtual relationships. The researchers also suggest that people with lower self-esteem may be drawn to social media use to avoid uncomfortable and awkward real-life experiences. They write:
"Individuals with lower self-esteem may develop more online relationships because they tend to be more sensitive to interpersonal relations and more dependent on others for approval. This may be related to feelings of awkwardness in face-to-face social situations, and thus, communicating online via social networking sites might be an effective way of socializing for them."
Further, people with low self-esteem may be more likely to use social media sites in problematic ways—for instance, overusing social media sites or engaging in negative social comparisons.
A few other interesting findings emerged: Of the four regions measured (Asia, Australia, North America, and Europe), the researchers found the negative relationship between social media use and self-esteem to be strongest in Australia and weakest in North America. They also found that people who used multiple social networks were worse off than people who used only Facebook. And, not surprisingly, people who exhibited problematic social media use exhibited the lowest self-esteem of all the groups measured.
The researchers don't expect the story to end here. In fact, they believe there are benefits to using social networking sites that haven't yet been adequately addressed. They write, "While our effect size was significant and consistent with existing theories on social networking site use and self-esteem, the obtained effect was still small, suggesting that this relationship is not a particularly strong one. Because of this, it's important to consider the alternative hypothesis—that increased use of social networking sites might be associated with higher self-esteem. [...] These results highlight a need for further, more nuanced investigations of social networking site use, particularly, of positive social networking site use."
Saiphoo, A. N., Halevi, L. D., & Vahedi, Z. (2020). Social networking site use and self-esteem: A meta-analytic review. Personality and Individual Differences, 153, 109639.