The harmful habit of comparison using social media — or are we blaming the messenger?

Presenting ourselves in the most flattering light is hardly new. The ancient Egyptians were known for the early development of makeup — black kohl eyeliner is surely the biggest cosmetic best seller both B.C. and A.D. More recently, looking the best we possibly can, and then digitally enhancing our best efforts have had a potentially more sinister impact as to how we ‘see’ ourselves and our own mental health. In the last year, the World Health Organisation has identified depression as the leading cause of disability — globally. There are many different causes of depression ranging from genetic factors, life events, drug/alcohol use and personal factors. Equally there are a plethora of studies and surveys proving that a perceived lack of popularity on social media or ‘likes’ can have a negative impact on mental health.

So is the problem that we are over sharing and over connecting? Has social media caused us to reach out more than we should or is it just a super effective tool enabling an intrinsic human need?

There is a vast body of research acknowledging that the need for social connection and approval is deeply embedded in our brain and behaviour.

Perhaps the most telling is the conclusion Matthew Lieberman reaches in his book, ‘Social: Why our brains are wired to connect’. Lieberman and his team conducted experiments showing that the same parts of the brain are ignited when coping with social exclusion and physical pain. He comments “Our brains evolved to experience threats to our social connections in much the same way they experience physical pain…..We intuitively believe social and physical pain are radically different kinds of experiences, yet the way our brains treat them suggests that they are more similar than we imagine.”

But as Matthew Lieberman is at pains to explain, the need for positive social interaction is hardly new. “It’s been there in one form or another since before the dinosaurs 250 million years ago,” he said.

While there is no doubt social media enables connection and interaction at a different level than society has ever experienced, the term ‘social media’ includes a wide range of tools, not all of which will have an impact on mental health. So exactly what is the balance between the different kinds of social media we access each day? In a recent study by dscout (a qualitative research platform using a mobile app and +100K eager participants) their volunteers recorded 2617 touches a day. Looking at the top 20, Facebook was the clear leader at 15%, closely followed by Messenger but after that the results were surprising. The image laden Instagram was only 3% as was Gmail, WhatsApp, Messenger, Google App and dscout. And the top 5 of the top 10 touchiest app categories were games, shopping, health and fitness, social media and then dating.

While cyber bullying occurs using many text based tools, dissatisfaction with personal appearance and lifestyle compared with others viewed on social media has the biggest impact on mental health. The disease of ‘comparisonitis’ is a particularly evil double edged sword. When you compare yourself with someone else you either feel deflated at your own perceived lesser beauty, worth , status or you feel superior to the other person and therefore they aren’t worthy of comparison anyway. There are no winners in a comparison competition and no middle ground. You can’t actually ‘compare’ yourself to someone else who is exactly the same.

A June 2014 survey from the statistics company StatPro found that 68% of people share information on social media to define their identities. “When you’re waiting for someone else to confirm that what you’re doing is cool, you’re basing your opinion of yourself on their values, not your own. And the further you stray from your own center, the more unhappy and miserable you’ll feel,” explains Bryan Dik, PhD, a Denver-based vocational psychologist

But is social media really to blame if we don’t feel great? Or rather is it the belief that we are our image which is the problem?

The way we look has and always will matter at a base physical level born out of primitive man’s hard wiring to choose the best available mate. The challenge is that what we perceive as ‘beauty’ is as hardwired into our brains as the need for social connection. This unconscious bias towards certain physical attributes has been documented by scientists from many countries over the last 50 years into the so called ‘golden ratio’ of facial proportions. The requirements for ‘beauty’ in this sense are very precise.

Researchers from the University of California recently revealed that the most attractive face shape is no more than 1.5 times longer than its width and the distance from eyes to mouth is 36% of the face’s length. The most attractive eyes are when the distance between the middle of the pupils is 46% of total face width measured between the inner edges of the ears. And plastic surgeons have revealed the ‘perfect’ angle between the centre of the chin and the slant of the cheekbones is 81 degrees. Anyone have a protractor handy to check?

But are we really defined by how we look or is the readily accessible and ultimate ‘comparisonitis’ visual social media tools that lure us into this belief?

The ability to separate who I am as a person from my image is not just advice I am blithely dispensing, I was forced to confront this issue myself and find a way to cope. My level of self esteem about my own appearance got off to a rocky start when my parents insisted I had my hair short until I was in my mid teens. Being addressed as ‘sonny’ whenever I was introduced to an adult didn’t make me feel great. But as I grew older, I was happy with my appearance and took a great deal of pride in how I looked.

Does pride always come before a fall? Let’s just say when I was undergoing chemotherapy, there was no satisfaction about how I looked. I was closer to Gollum than glamourous. I remember undressing to have a shower, draping a towel over the mirror so I couldn’t see the bald me, ten kilos underweight so every rib was defined and the foot long scar across my chest when one breast used to be. Even being hairless wasn’t completely worry free. The bittersweet irony of being as smooth as a new born but still having to wax my legs still lingers.

And yet I was still myself, my spirit was intact. I found a way to manage how I felt about my appearance no matter how Í looked (or more significantly in discussing social media and image) how others saw me.

We now have the ability to share a favourite image of ourselves, just as we did forty years ago to visitors admiring the carefully placed framed photos on the mantelpiece. But even back then, we chose which images we displayed and put the photos of our best-looking selves into the holiday photo album to take to coffee with a friend. The behaviour to display ourselves in the best possible light hasn’t changed, it’s just that now we can amplify this behaviour thousands of times, and share our photos with anyone on the planet who cares to look. And not just one image, a plethora of frozen seconds reliving aspirational events from our enviable lives.

There many useful tools and hacks to reduce screen time in the hope that less time to compare ourselves with others will equate to a higher level of happiness. The more useful ways to reduce screen time include:

· No screen time 30 minutes after waking and before going to bed

· No screen time during meals.

· Leaving the phone at home when going away for a weekend (gasp)

· Having set times of the day to check Facebook, Instagram etc and then not checking outside those times.

Controlling screen time is a great way to way to reduce the opportunity to compare ourselves unfavourably with others but addresses the symptom rather than the cause.

In ‘Eleanor Rigby’ Lennon and McCartney wrote about Eleanor waiting at the window waiting for a visitor,

’…..wearing the face

That she kept in a jar by the door.

Who is it for?’

The images we present on social media are the faces we keep in our virtual ‘jar by the door.’ It is not a matter of being inauthentic. It is arguably unnatural to post the first photo we take without checking our appearance. But to believe that we are the images presented on social media has about as much basis as remote cultures believing that a photo would rob them of their soul.

Yes there is a relation between social media and mental health but perhaps more education and emphasis on the choice of attitude towards it would be more helpful than the pointing the bony finger of blame at all screen time. I find it intriguing that advice such as

Don’t judge a book by its cover

or

If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.

is readily accepted and acted upon and yet when we look at Facebook and Instagram, it’s as though we are wearing foggy goggles and can’t see beyond what is presented to us. What we are viewing isn’t everyday life, it’s a series of edited and beautifully presented highlights. But if you can accept this, step back and view without goggles, it is possible to enjoy and share what we see without criticism or comparison.

Real life begins off screen, when we look in the mirror at our filter free reflection and rather than comparing ourselves with others, reflect on how we lived the day, not what it looked like.

And if we are striving to be the best version of ourselves no matter what that looks like? Screens are optional.

[EG1]