Supervised by: Jasmine Lee, BA (Hons) (Cantab.). Jasmine recently graduated from the University of Cambridge having studied Psychological and Behavioural Sciences. She did outreach work for Pembroke College as a student ambassador, and organised TEDx events as the co-president of TEDxCambridgeUniversity. She is currently studying for her masters in Developmental and Educational Psychology at University College London (UCL).


Social comparison theory is the notion that people should evaluate themselves in order to understand their value with regard to others. This paper explores the relationship between social comparison and social media, identifies individuals who are more likely to engage in social comparison, and examines its adverse effects on mental health, especially in younger individuals. 

This study integrates information from various articles, including academic journals, in order to provide evidence of the effects that social comparison on social media has on human behavior. It leads us to understand that social comparison generates primarily negative consequences. Various depressive disorders stem from low self-esteem that increases due to comparing oneself to those deemed to be of a higher status, whether it is their appearance, intellect, lifestyle, etc. Individuals who are emotionally unstable and/or spend a lot of their screen time consuming social media seem to be more susceptible to these harmful effects, as well as the younger generation. Due to insufficient and mixed evidence, it cannot be concluded whether a certain gender is affected more. There is also a lack of evidence of beneficial effects of social comparison on social media, hence it is determined that, for the most part, it is detrimental to the well-being of individuals.


Social comparison is a theory proposed by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954 that states that individuals determine their self-worth by comparing themselves to others. It is the tendency to use other people as sources of information to determine how we are doing relative to others (ability comparison) or how we should behave, think, and feel (opinion comparison). These comparisons can be anything and everything in a person’s life,  such as lifestyle choices, looks and charisma, academic achievements, wealth, and more. Further, there are three types of social comparison: upward social comparison, downward social comparison, and lateral social comparison. In upward comparison, an individual compares themselves to someone better. This often results in feeling inferior to them or being motivated to be a better version of ourselves. In a downward comparison, an individual compares their life with someone who is less skilled or worse than them. This comparison causes a boost in self-esteem and confidence for many people. In lateral social comparison, an individual compares themselves to those who are considered equal to them in certain aspects of their lives. This kind of comparison is usually with peers who are close in age or the same age.

However, in general, more people socially compare themselves upward, leading to feeling worse about themselves. This was shown through a 2018 systematic review on social comparison. This review looked at six decades of studies that showed what kind of people an individual would choose to compare themselves with. Results showed that people were more likely to engage in upward rather than downward social comparisons. In addition, recent research has endorsed the idea that upward social comparison can inspire us and create positive changes in our lives.

Despite being a relatively new phenomenon, social media has experienced rapid acceptance, particularly among young individuals. They are “digital natives,” having grown up surrounded by technology, and almost 90% of them use social media sites like Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Snapchat, and YouTube. In the United States, for example, about 70% of the public has used social media. Social comparison occurs daily in person, but social media not only encourages its use but also magnifies its effects. 

Pew Research finds that as of 2022, 95% of teenagers used YouTube, 67% used TikTok, and 60% used Instagram and Snapchat. With 95% of teenagers in the US having access to a phone, we see that social media usage is not alien; almost 54% of teenagers find it difficult to give up social media. In a global setting, more than half the world (60%), with 150 million new users having come online in the last year, uses social media. 

The reason for this is that social media was developed to be addictive so that its users would constantly use it. Social media platform designers create complex prediction algorithms using users’ past viewing habits in order to increase engagement. Many features fulfill this goal since business models demand that they keep users looking at the screen for as long as possible to watch advertisements. Additionally, to keep users coming back to the screen, features like advertisements, prompts, alerts, and playback are specifically tuned to the user’s choices (Warburton, 2021). For certain people, this may lead to problems with problematic social media use, such as obsessive use despite negative effects on relationships, mental health, and physical health.   

Nancy Deangelis, CRNP, Director of Behavioral Health, Jefferson Health-Abington, says, “Social media platforms drive surges of dopamine to the brain to keep consumers coming back over and over again. The shares, likes, and comments on these platforms trigger the brain’s reward center, resulting in a high similar to the one people feel when gambling or using drugs.” 

It is this constant usage that leads to social comparison. Studies have shown that social comparisons arise due to the use of social media. 

Due to the nature of social media, people are consistently observing others and their lives, either consciously or subconsciously comparing themselves. Social media app elements are linked to classic psychological and economic theories such as the mere-exposure effect, endowment effect, and Zeigarnik effect, but also to psychological mechanisms triggering social comparison. Because posts on social media only display the best parts of people’s lives, they represent unrealistic expectations. This is why social comparison is so much stronger on social media and also leads to unhealthy consequences.

This paper was written with the aim of examining the existing research on social comparison on social networking sites. Current literature lacks the influence of social media as both a mediator and a moderator and views social media as either a mediator or a moderator. Given the paucity of comprehensive studies that draw together literature on this broad topic (Verduyn, 2020), this paper aims to:

  • To critically assess the current literature on social media and its effects on social comparison
  • To investigate the factors that affect social comparison on social media and learn more about why social media causes social comparison

Factors Affecting Social Comparison on Social Media

At the outset, we can find a few factors affecting social comparison on social media.

A. Personality 

With regard to personality, we find that neurotic personalities are more likely to engage in social comparison. Rozgonjuk’s (2019) findings suggest that people with higher levels of neuroticism are more prone to social comparison. The emotional instability that is characteristic of individuals high on neuroticism is expressed in continuous feelings of anxiety, depression, low mood, and uncertainty (Costa & McCrae, 1985). Such negative feelings have been associated with a higher need to compare one’s situation with that of others in order to reduce uncertainty or to feel better about oneself (Molleman et al.,1986; Taylor, Buunk, & Aspinwall, 1990; VanderZee et al.,1995). 

In terms of the direction of comparison, people with high levels of neuroticism tended to favour comparisons with those who were doing better than themselves over those who were doing worse. Furthermore, extroverts had more preferences for downward comparisons and fewer preferences for upward comparisons compared to introverts. People who experienced depressive symptoms and associated feelings of poor self-esteem were also more likely to engage in harmful social comparisons on social networking sites, which might worsen their mental health.

To conclude, people higher in neuroticism are more likely to feel the unpleasant emotional outcomes of both upward and downward comparisons compared to those lower in neuroticism.

B. Usage 

Secondly, the occurrence of social comparison also depends on how social media is used. Two kinds of social networking site usage are found in literature, namely active use and passive use. Activities that allow for direct communication with others are considered active usage. This entails specific one-on-one interactions (sending a direct message) and broadcasting (updating your profile). Passive use is the action of following other users’ online activities without directly interacting with them (browsing through your feeds or visiting their profiles). Thus, while in active usage we engage in producing information, in passive usage we merely consume information. 

Hence, it is not improbable to suggest that passive users of social media indulge in social comparison more than active consumers. We can also predict the direction of the comparison. As passive consumers merely consume information, they might tend to engage in more downward comparisons. 

According to a number of studies, active usage is better for well-being because it produces social capital and connectivity, but passive use is bad because it fosters envy and upward social comparison (e.g., Dienlin & Johannes, 2020; Verduyn et al., 2017). The active/passive dichotomy and the associated “active = good” and “passive = bad” theories have significantly influenced research on well-being (Docherty, 2020; Valkenburg et al., 2022). The active/passive dichotomy offered a much-needed advancement from global social media usage measures (such as screen time and frequency), which proved to be too wide and invalid to adequately explain the impacts on well-being (Meier & Reinecke, 2021).

Yue et al. (2022) demonstrated that passive social media use is positively connected to both upward contrast and downward identification, which in turn predicts a greater degree of stress. The sample included 1131 Wuhan residents in China. Taking Facebook as an example, other studies have also found that passive Facebook use leads to decline in affective well-being over time. The reason for this, however, is very intriguing. In a one-of-a-kind study by Burnell (2019), researchers found that passive social networking site surfing may be related to depressive symptoms and self-perceptions in ways that involve both online social comparison and the fear of missing out (FOMO). Social comparison and FOMO are two ways that passive usage is related to these results. 

Active use of social networking sites adversely predicted global self-worth, self-perceived physical attractiveness, and self-perceived social acceptability. Passive use of social networking sites favourably predicted social comparison, which was positively connected to FOMO.

However, this active-passive dichotomy is actively being questioned, citing inconsistent empirical evidence (e.g., Valkenburg, Beyens, et al., 2022; Valkenburg, van Driel, et al., 2022), severe conceptual issues (e.g., Ellison et al., 2020; Meier & Johnson, 2022), and problematic operationalisations (Kross et al., 2021; Trifiro & Gerson, 2019; Valkenburg, van Driel, et al., 2022).

Nonetheless, it is difficult for us to be on either side of this dichotomy. While the dichotomy is being increasingly criticised, in current literature, there is simply a lack of an alternative. 

Social Comparison on Social Media: Mediator or Moderator?

Mediation and moderation are two theories for refining and understanding a causal relationship (Wu and Zumbo, 2008). A mediator variable explains the relationship, or how or why there is a relationship between two variables. On the other hand, a moderator variable affects the strength or direction of the relationship between the two variables being compared. 

Social comparison, in numerous studies, has often been looked at as a mediator variable. As we have mentioned above, passive usage of social networking sites predicts online social comparison, and this online social comparison most frequently has a negative influence on subjective well-being indicators. There is a vast literature on upward comparisons being made on social media, which has a negative impact on social well-being. For example, a study by Wang et al. (2017), looking specifically at subjective well-being, found that upward social comparison and self-esteem mediated the relationship between social networking site usage and users’ subjective well-being.

Therefore, we cannot deem it an error to consider social comparison as a mediator variable.

That being said, however, social comparison is not the sole link between social media and well-being. Many studies show that active use of social media increases social capital and associated feelings of social connectedness, which, in turn, predict increases in subjective well-being. Additionally, the displacement of real-life interactions, information overload, and procrastination have all been suggested as potential explanatory processes behind the relationship between social networking sites and subjective well-being.

When we look at social comparison as a moderator, studies suggest that social comparison acts as a vulnerability factor. This means that people who compare themselves, as opposed to those who do not, experience stronger reductions in self-esteem and higher levels of melancholy while looking at Facebook newsfeeds or other users’ profiles. The same Wang et al. study that found social comparison as a mediator found that social comparison orientation moderated the association between passive social networking site usage and users’ upward social comparison. 

A study on young adults by Loi et al. (2020) found that while upward social comparison did not moderate the relationship between time spent on social media and depression or self-esteem, downward social comparison moderated the relationship between time spent on social media and levels of depression; however, no moderating effect was found for self-esteem.

What we can infer from this is that it is very difficult to pinpoint the role of social comparison in social media. While there is a plethora of research to indicate its role as a mediator, compelling arguments for social comparison’s role as a moderator can be made as well, creating scope for another debate in the field of social psychology. 

Social comparison in social media: the younger generation 

In the last couple of decades, there has been a dramatic increase in technology and access to the Internet. But who is most affected by technology’s evolution? Pew Research Center Publications states that the web continues to be primarily populated by the younger generations, as more than half of the adult internet population is between 14 and 44 years old (Jones, 2009). A survey, conducted between July 26 and September 30, 2012, representing 802 parents and 802 teens, showed that 78% of teens (12 to 17) have a cell phone and 1 in 4 are “cell-mostly” internet users—far more than the 15% of adults who are cell-mostly (Madden et al., 2013). Also, on average, 8–18-year-olds spend 7 hours and 38 minutes using media and the internet across a day—more than 53 hours a week (J. Rideout et al., 2010). So, to say the least, it is evident that the internet is a huge part of younger generations’ lives. 

The reason social media affects our self-worth is because our identity is dependent on being unique while being able to get along with and fit in with a social group. As humans, we want to feel like we belong, and social media plays on that. It gives us the ability to show our best without flaws and fills our hearts with the acceptance we crave. But it is a platform that shows only the best of the best, which causes an increase in comparisons itself. 

Social comparison theory shows that unhappiness and comparison are linked (Newport Academy, 2019). Research on adolescents suggests negative emotions come first, and teens who already have low self-esteem or depression are more likely to compare themselves, causing them to feel worse and creating a negative cycle (Newport Academy, 2019). Unfortunately, it doesn’t help that teens spend a lot of their time on the internet and social media, showing them their profiles and photos, further leading to constant comparisons. As with other types of social comparison, teens report lower self-esteem and self-evaluation when engaging in upward comparison on Facebook and other social media sites (Newport Academy, 2019). This shows that teens and young adults are more vulnerable and affected by social comparison on social media, as they are the biggest users of the internet and social networking platforms. 

Is gender a factor?

A question we often hear is, which gender is more likely to be affected by social comparison on social media? The truth is that with current data and research, it depends on the sample population, hence the data is inconclusive. According to research data by Ualbert, approximately 90% of women stated that they compare themselves with other people on these social networking platforms,  while 60% of men admitted they compare themselves when they are using social media (B2Press, 2022). Plus, about 40% of these people felt more negative about themselves after these comparisons. In contrast, other published papers have claimed that there needs to be more research done to determine if women are more affected than men and if gender truly plays a role in how much an individual participates in social media (Jed Foundation, 2023). In light of different claims by different organisations, we can say that the current data is inconclusive as to whether gender is a factor in social comparisons.

Disorders and Body Image

As social media use increases with the rise of platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat, it is evident that an effect of these addictive sites is negative social comparison (Jed Foundation, 2023). To further specify, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, eating disorders, and body image issues are just some of the many effects of the negative comparison that occurs from the use of social media. One of many reasons for this kind of effect is just a simple exposure to constantly seeing profiles of successful and healthy people who, oftentimes, don’t show the struggles of reality and hide all their flaws. This kind of exposure can easily trigger social comparison and create negative self-evaluations (Jed Foundation, 2023).

A nationally representative sample of 1787 U.S. young adults ages 19–32 was surveyed (Primack et al., 2017). This survey compared those who use 0–2 social media platforms to those who use 7–11 social media platforms (Primack et al., 2017). As they measured the depression and anxiety symptoms using the Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System (PROMIS), the results showed that the use of multiple social media platforms is independently associated with the symptoms of depression and anxiety (Primack et al., 2017). This survey clearly showed how social media can be seen as a potential factor in depression and anxiety disorders, further proving the extreme consequences of negative social comparison caused by social media. As the Jed Foundation (2023) stated, “people who are heavy users of social media (up to 5 hours a day) have been shown to have a lower sense of self, suffer from depression, and even have thoughts of suicide.” This only goes to show that social media can significantly impact our mental health due to feelings of envy or low self-esteem, which are very likely caused by negative social comparison.

Body image issues are also another effect of negative self-comparison in men and women, especially in adolescent development (Jed Foundation, 2023). Although the standards for men’s and women’s ideal bodies may be different, it seems that both are vulnerable to unrealistic standards that cause low self-esteem. A study of young teens revealed that girls enjoyed photos of celebrities and fashion models (Newport Academy, 2019). However, they also felt that such content created certain standards and expectations, making it hard to avoid comparisons around body image (Newport Academy, 2019). Newport Academy stated, “Social media use increases the intensity of these body image comparisons,” further demonstrating the negative effects of social comparison due to social media. In another study, published in 2016, 881 female college students in the United States were interviewed by researchers (Newport Academy, 2019). They found that the more time teenagers spent on social media, the more they compared their bodies, leaving them with a negative perspective on their appearance (Newport Academy, 2019). In addition to social media increasing body image issues through negative comparisons, spending more time on social media is also associated with the desire to change one’s body (Jed Foundation, 2023). These kinds of thoughts are often promoted by people who have ideal bodies and are most likely using filters and editing their pictures to create unrealistic body types (Jed Foundation, 2023). This kind of influence can lead people with body image issues and a desire to change their physical appearance to fall into the path of disordered eating habits, likely causing them to develop eating disorders (Jed Foundation, 2023). At the end of the day, social media has the potential to destroy one’s mental health and lead them towards a path of upward comparison, often ending in negative comparison, which hurts an individual’s self-esteem and potentially causes disorders and body image issues (Jed Foundation, 2023; Newport Academy, 2019)


So far, the effects of social media on social comparison are primarily negative, affecting the mental health of all sorts of people around the world who have access to it. Looking at the advantages of social comparison on social media, one can find that the list is slim. Self-esteem is boosted by downward comparison in social media and in-person conversations. When people compare themselves to those in “poorer conditions”, they gain a sense of satisfaction and an increase in ego. Downward comparison usually takes place when people want to feel better about themselves, and it’s less easy to feel good if the people one is always noticing on social media are “better”. Social media can also include platforms on which people can push themselves to do and be better. People often say social media can negatively influence human beings into developing unhealthy habits and affecting their mental health, but it can also positively influence them. Perhaps it can encourage those who can’t get out of bed to do just that, those who sit on the couch all day to become more active, et cetera. This is a competition that is done in a calm and sociable way. It is said that the feeling of jealousy can provoke people to improve. In the bigger picture, even though social media has its damaging qualities, it can provide support, unity, and growth, which is why most people still use it today.


Social media stimulates the use of social comparison theory due to the many characteristics of these kinds of apps that lead to addictiveness. Social comparison leads to numerous negative effects as well as a few advantages, but social media enhances the negative ones. Given the paucity of research defending positive impacts of social comparison on social media, and the hundreds of papers that demonstrate its harms, we conclude that the use of upward comparison in social media more often than not leads to a decrease in self-esteem and a worsening of people’s mental health, which can sometimes lead to depressive disorders. Social comparison also occurs more with passive users due to their endless consumption of media content. It is not a surprise that teens and adolescents in this generation are especially affected by social comparisons on social media. Nowadays, almost every young person has a cell phone, and most will have some form of social media on it. Children’s minds are also still developing, so they are more vulnerable to the harmful effects of social comparison. 

This paper has demonstrated that social comparison on social media has many negative effects on the younger generation. Recommendations and interventions can be made in future research in order to reduce social comparison through the constant use of social media. One way is to put an age limit on when technology, such as phones, should be introduced to children. Younger kids are recommended not to use social media, and if the limit allows the use of phones only until a later age, then younger children’s mental health may not be as negatively affected. 

Another way, for all ages, is to limit screen time. This will limit the amount of social media consumed as a whole. Using these recommendations and interventions will hopefully decrease social comparison and the effects it has on mental health, physical well-being, and relationships. If one is on social media, then it is advised that instead of constantly being a passive user, they become an active user as well. A small study shows that adolescents who are passive users of social media had a drop in self-esteem, while those who are active users and use social media as a way to interact with others did not experience these drops (Mayo Clinic, 2022). Individuals should aim to use social media to put out their own posts or talk with their friends online instead of only consuming an endless stream of content.

Future research should certainly delve into how we can change our patterns of social media usage. More research can be conducted in the form of interventions to prevent excessive social comparison on social media. Further, a comparative study on comparison in social media rather than real life can also be made. The topic area of social comparison is very wide, and one can incorporate not only different platforms of social media when conducting research but also genders, ages, and potentially even personality types. 

There remains a lot of research to be written and explored, and we hope our contribution to the literature helps others further the field.


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