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Erin Vogel, PhD.

Erin Vogel, PhD, is a social psychologist and postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. Dr. Vogel’s research focuses on the effects of social media use on well-being, social influences on health behaviors, and the use of digital tools to improve health. Her current research projects involve adolescent e-cigarette use, smoking in the LGBTQ+ community, and co-occurring health risk behaviors. You can find her on Twitter: @erinvogelPhD

If you were to open Instagram, Facebook, or your social media platform of choice right now, what would you see? Would you see meaningful updates from your close friends? Or a barrage of acquaintances going on exciting trips, accomplishing great things, and having fun? Most of the time, we see the latter. As you may expect, the onslaught of unachievably exciting lives can affect how we view our own.

Comparing ourselves to other people who seem to be doing better than us (called upward comparison) can make us feel like we don’t measure up. Social media amplifies these negative effects, because we’re often viewing photos and updates from people we don’t know very well in real life. Seeing “highlight reels” from acquaintances or strangers affects us negatively because when we don’t know people very well, it’s easy to forget that their lives aren’t as perfect as they appear on social media. Comparing ourselves to others on social media affects our self-esteem, perceptions of ourselves, depressive symptoms, and mood. These effects are especially strong among people who are more sensitive to social comparisons in general. If you find that you frequently compare yourself to others in your daily life and place a lot of importance on those comparisons, you’re at high risk for feeling worse after using social media.

When we see other social media users’ highlight reels, we often experience a “fear of missing out”, or “FOMO”. FOMO describes the anxiety we feel when it seems that others are having rewarding experiences without us. FOMO isn’t exclusive to social media, but browsing social media sets us up for experiencing it. Imagine you’re happy to stay home on a Friday night, but when you’re scrolling through social media while sitting on the couch, it looks like everyone you know is having a great time. You might feel like you’re missing out on the fun. Indeed, people who are very engaged in social media use experience more FOMO than those who use social media less intensely. Experiencing FOMO is not only distressing, it may actually be bad for our health. On the days that we experience a lot of FOMO, we’re more likely to be in a bad mood, feel fatigued and stressed, and even more likely to have sleep problems and physical symptoms.

Using social media has benefits too, such as keeping in touch with friends, expressing ourselves, and getting support from our social networks. So how can we ease the negative effects of social media use on our well-being without losing the benefits of it? Here are some best practices for healthy social media use, based on research:

1.     Use social media in moderation. The negative effects of social media often occur when social media is used very frequently, or at the expense of maintaining relationships offline. Social media can be a great tool for connecting with other people. Although we can experience FOMO when we learn about fun events after-the-fact, social media can also be a great way to find out about events we are able to attend. Social media can complement a healthy, fulfilling social life when used in moderation. To reduce your social media use, try using Moment or another activity-tracking smartphone app to monitor the time you spend on social media and set realistic goals for reducing your social media time and replacing it with more fulfilling activities.

2.     Focus on your friends more than your acquaintances. We can use social media to keep in touch with people who live far away and to see what our friends are doing. Viewing close friends’ posts is less likely to provoke the upward social comparison that harms our well-being than viewing acquaintances’ or strangers’ posts.

3.     Share updates from your own life in a mindful way. Although we know our own lives aren’t perfect, it’s often tempting to portray them that way on social media. It’s natural to want to present ourselves positively, and updating our own social media accounts can boost our self-esteem. However, occasionally discussing the less-than-perfect aspects of our lives can help others feel connected to us and give them the opportunity to support us. Honesty on social media may also help mitigate the negative consequences of social media use for others.

Occasional FOMO and social comparison may be inevitable consequences of using social media platforms, which offer us rich insight into what other people are doing at all times. However, when social media is used mindfully and in moderation, it may enhance our social lives and self-image more than it detracts from them.