Is Social Media Ruining Our Self-Esteem?
The number of people on social media has skyrocketed in recent years as we seek connection and social support. But is social media wrecking our self-esteem?
The Influence of Social Media
Since 2005, the number of adults in the United States using social media has risen from 5% to 72%.1 Reports suggest that of the 7.9 billion people on this planet, roughly 3.6 billion people were using in 2020, with that number projected to rise to about 4.4 billion by 2024.2
With more people spending their days, many of us are beginning to notice the downsides to large amounts of social media use. As it stands, internet users spend an average of 144 minutes each day.2 This amount ends up being over two hours a day on social media.
Moreover, while we can certainly use Social networks to bring about positive effects like the increased connection with loved ones, greater access to resources, personal development, and community-building – the research suggests we do not usually use social media this way. This article will examine the influence of social media on our self-esteem and how to address an addiction to technology.
What is Social Media Overload?
Social media overload is a relatively recent phenomenon that’s best described as a feeling of fatigue from overexposure to Social network content and communications. The conditions of the pandemic have made the faux connections and short-term highs that come with using social media have made it all the more attractive. As our Social network use has risen, however, many of us have begun noticing impacts on our wellbeing and relationships.
However, the trouble with Social network is that it taps into two powerful systems: our social drive to connect and our dopamine-driven reward system. Because of the interplay between these two systems, we can find ourselves stuck in a habitual cycle of addictive fatigue, heading to social media for the connection it offers and leaving more tired and lonely than before.
To understand the addictive nature of social media, let’s start with how our brains build habits. When we first experience a reward or something pleasurable – from receiving a compliment to winning the lotto – our brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter to help reinforce our memory of what we did to receive that reward. The next time we see that reward, our brains release anticipatory dopamine to motivate us towards achieving that reward again.
Research has shown that positive social stimuli (e.g., validation from peers, messages from loved ones, laughing faces) trigger the same habit-forming dopamine pathways by tapping into our evolutionary drive for connection, providing one reason we find social media so addictive.3
A second more powerful reason, though, is explained by leaders like Chamath Palihapitiya,4 the former Facebook VP of User Growth, and Sean Parker,5 the founding President of Facebook, who have spoken up about the not-so-accidental dopamine-triggering effect of social network.
Similar to slot machines in casinos, Social network platforms were designed to leverage variable reward schedules. As mentioned earlier, dopamine is first released upon receiving the reward, but as we reinforce that habit, we begin experiencing dopamine bursts upon anticipation as well. By using variable reward schedules and releasing the reward at intervals we can’t predict (instead of each time we perform the action, like each time we check our phone), social media keeps us constantly checking in, waiting for that burst of social validation that could come at any second.
Social media platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram make their money mainly through advertisers, so their goal is to help keep users online as long as possible. Unfortunately, this drive from both Social network developers and users to stay online and “connected” does not seem to foster results and benefits many of us might hope for.
How Social Media Is Linked to Self-Esteem
While social media certainly offers many benefits like the connection with distant loved ones, professional development, and community-building, there are numerous downsides to chronic Social network use. Namely: self-esteem.
At its core, self-esteem reflects our beliefs about ourselves and our worth. Self-esteem is strongly related to our wellbeing and can impact everything from academic and work performance to confidence and resilience in the face of stress. Low self-esteem has been linked to depression, anxiety, academic stress, suicidal ideation,6 substance abuse, and anger issues.7 Unfortunately, it seems that self-esteem is often worsened by social media use.
Paradoxically, while many of us head to our favorite social media sites to feel connected to others, we often leave feeling lonelier than before. One study from 2010 analyzing data from 21,258 participants found that internet users harmed well-being, including loneliness and self-esteem.8
Spending significant time on social media sites may increase feelings of envy which in turn decreases life satisfaction, found a series of studies from 2013.9 This trend towards jealousy is likely tied to one of the more toxic aspects of Social network: self-comparison. With so many picture-perfect posts and status updates, it is easy to feel like our lives aren’t measuring up, which can lead to increased self-judgment and low self-esteem.
Spending too much time on social media may contribute to worsening anxiety, suggests a recent 2020 study.10 While Social networks did not directly impact anxiety, the study found that the more time people spent on social media, the more they engaged in social comparison and the further their self-esteem fell.
Intertwined with loneliness, comparison, and low self-esteem is depression. The same meta-study from 2010 mentioned above also found that using the internet was associated with slightly higher rates of depression.11
While studies have not identified a direct link between Social networks and stress, many of us can testify to the experience of fatigue and overwhelm that can accompany scrolling through social media.12 Often, Social networks can trigger a fear of missing out and can make us feel like we’re not doing enough.
Hindered Social Skills
As more of us spend time “alone together,” many wonder about the impact on our social skills. Instead of engaging face to face with their peers, soaking up the subtle facial expressions and tonal nuances that guide human communication and connection, many children often spend as much time as adults on social media.
Social media communication makes it so we cannot see or feel the impact our words have on others, making it all too easy to speak impulsively and hurt others. Those accustomed to the time and space of texting to craft replies may also find themselves anxious or struggling with conversations happening at the moment.
Ways Social Media Is Impacting Intimate Relationships
Excess or chronic social media use may also contribute to worsening relationships among couples. Social media can lead to unrealistic expectations and, as mentioned earlier, heavily impacts our self-esteem.
Couples may find themselves struggling with:
One study from 2013 found that couples who had been together three years or less who spent more time on Facebook experienced higher rates of negative relationship outcomes and more “Facebook-related conflict.”13
Not only do we compare and judge ourselves more the more we use social media, but we also may become increasingly critical of our partners as we compare them to unrealistic standards and expectations.
Body Image Issues
Body insecurities and negative body image are often worsened by excess time spent on social media, where unrealistic standards of beauty and body shaming from cyberbullies may reinforce insecurities for both ourselves and in judging our partners.
With envy, self-comparison, and low self-esteem on the rise with Social network use, it is understandable how easily we can become paranoid about significant others. With the politicization of Social networks, many find themselves in a perpetual place of paranoia.
A study exploring the impact of oversharing online with a romantic partner versus in-person found that online oversharing led to lower levels of perceived relationship intimacy and satisfaction than in-person oversharing.14
Effects of Technology in Adolescents
Chronic social media use impacts each of us but can have significant disruptive effects on the minds of adolescents. Many parents have grown increasingly worried over teenagers’ phone addiction, especially over the past decade as we have become more aware of the mental health issues associated with social media use.
Unrealistic Beauty Standards
For adolescents, the impact of cyberbullying can be devastating for mental health. Chronic overexposure to perfectly curated photos and toxic media can leave children and teens playing with filters all day, adjusting their faces and bodies till they meet the baseline for social media beauty.
Unchecked social media use also makes it hard for developing minds to understand realistic standards for communication and relationships. Chronic social media use can lead to poor social skills and, in some cases, makes it easier to normalize stalking.
Dependence on Dopamine Boost
Teenage phone addiction is a particular source of worry for researchers, as the adolescent mind is particularly vulnerable to issues with self-esteem and developing addictive tendencies towards social connection. The short-lived highs of dopamine bursts that accompany likes, messages, and shares can give massive yet fleeting boosts to self-esteem, which, when gone, leave teens in the lurch and itching for more.
What Should Parents Do?
If you believe your child may have teenager or adolescent phone addiction and do not want to try child psychiatry just yet, there are several steps you can take to help.
Step #1: Curtail Your Own Consumption
Children are like sponges; they learn and absorb information from everyone and everything around them. So if you’re constantly glued to your phone, your kids will likely follow suit. So lead by example, put down the phone, and explore other ways you can all enjoy your phone-free time together.
Step #2: Set Time Limits
To avoid the histrionics that often accompany limiting teenage phone addiction, set time caps for tech use in advance so no one can say they’re surprised when it’s time to head offline. Make sure to work with your child to build these limits so they feel invested, involved, and are more likely to respect the schedule when it’s time to power down the tech.
Step #3: Set Technology-Free Zones in the House
If your child is not responding to time limits, creating physical boundaries in the house for technology can help encourage conversation, connection, and closeness with family members. Say, limiting social media so it cannot be used at the dinner table.
Step #4: Encourage Healthy Friendships
Many cases of teenagers’ phone addiction begin with kids searching for connections. So encourage your child to explore friendships in real life. If they feel anxious, talk through their insecurities with love and patience, so they can grow a healthy social network offline.
How to Reduce Social Media Use
If you would like to lessen your own use of social media, try deleting apps that serve as constant sources of distraction. You can also adjust your notification settings so you do not receive those addictive minute-to-minute reminders that keep you glued to your phone. If all else fails, those physical boundaries on where you can use your phone are not just for your kids – you can use them as well.
Technology Addiction Treatment
If you believe your child is struggling with phone addiction or you personally want to cut back on tech time, there are plenty of options that can help.
- Behavioral therapies offer research-backed methods to working through addiction, primarily by centering self-evaluation and awareness skills, so adults and children alike can grow more aware of their thoughts and experience in the present moment and choose more beneficial actions and outcomes.
- Counseling and child psychiatry can help provide a safe and comfortable environment to unravel the roots of your social media addiction and determine more effective and beneficial pathways to obtaining the social connections we’re looking for, without the adverse sides of chronic social media use.
- Meditation is another pathway to greater awareness, focus, and wellbeing that in addition to child psychiatry or when used alone, can help us understand our impulses and gain more control over them as they arise.