I’ve been reading more and more about social media and it’s impact on wellbeing. The more I read, the more I recognise traits and behaviours in myself and in others that are unhealthy (to say the least) and the more my desire grows to investigate and share my reading with you. This week, the topic I’ve been researching is ‘self-esteem and social media’ and those of you that have been following my posts about my issues with Twitter will know that this is an area I’ve been struggling with.

Self esteem is our perception of who we are and we can only have high self esteem when we consolidate this in our own minds. A lot of this stems from the feedback we receive from others – simply – the more we feel accepted by others, the more positive our self-perception is likely to be and thus, the better we feel about ourselves. Positive feedback and interactions from others, (or ‘social rewards’) trigger dopamine production – a neurotransmitter that stimulates and motivates reward-based actions and also makes us feel good. So it’s easy to see how we can get stuck striving for impossible attainments, socially.

The other problem is that social media is skewed, by us and by its makers, to only present a sugar-coated, rose-tinted representation of life. We share ‘peak’ experiences, making social media a highlights showreel of amazing and often unattainable things. Basically, in constructing this perfect vision of the world we want people to see us living in, we often choreograph our posts (in some cases, obsessively) to ensure we get the most social reward from them. Therefore, we alter the way we are behaving in reality to create an unreality of ourselves – another version for social media, if you like.

Social rewards on social media take the form of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’. People like what we post and want to share it with others, this validates our self-esteem, dopamine is released, we feel good and the cycle starts again. These are called ‘vanity metrics’ and yes, they may make us feel good, but researchers and analysts know they don’t actually mean or measure anything. We place value on what is essentially a false economy – it’s fascinating behaviour.

Naturally, we begin to compare ourselves with others and this can make us feel like we are inadequate. Social comparison theory was founded in the 50’s by Leon Festinger and is so relevant to social media use now. It states that we determine our own social and personal worth based on how we stack up against other people. Through social media – with its filters and hyper-connectivity – we can end up comparing all aspects of our lives – achievements, holidays, experiences etc, but we also compare how people ‘rate’ what we share; through their interactions with it and so begins a vicious cycle.

Subsequently, we then try harder to fashion more interesting ‘content’ and in a quest for social rewards we can sometimes create what is almost a doubly false reality and narrative for ourselves. How to break this? Well, I’m currently reevaluating my sense of self. I’d been looking at the Bird Therapy twitter through an account I made especially to check it. On Monday 16th at 6am, I looked for the last time. I stopped looking at the accounts that I constantly compare myself too and I’ve stuck to it. I already feel a million times better about pretty much everything. It’s crazy how much of an effect the striving for social rewards and acceptance can have on your wellbeing. As I reframe these expectations and desires, I can appreciate my own achievements for what they mean to me and not what other people think about them. That feels seriously good. From ludic loops to vanity metrics – I’m getting there!

8 thoughts on “The vicious cycle of the vanity metric

  1. Thats all so true Joe – you are developing a brilliant insight into how we humans behave and why we do the things we do. Keep going – it’s fascinating! Hope life is treating you well.

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  2. I’m not saying you’re wrong, but it’s interesting how different things affect different people in different ways. I easily get addicted to video games on my phone but never to gambling. Likewise despite creeping towards 1000 Instagram followers and a feature in The Guardian this week I’m like ‘meh’ and unlikely to struggle, apart from that game I already deleted twice that is…

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  3. I agree with you but find, that comparing yourself to others is not limited to Social Media. It’s an age-old problem and comes from having low self-esteem and the belief, that everybody else must have a better life than you: more connections, more friendships, more success, etc. I suppose Social Media can be particularly savage, because you’re in touch with so many people all at the same time and you don’t know who you’re dealing with.

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  4. I miss your presence Joe. As a relative Newbie yours was one of the first which inspired me by being celebratory and honest, and demonstrated what a positive force Twitter can be.
    I appreciate though very much your thoughts about why you have withdrawn and reflections on the negative effects of social media. You really can think clearly and communicate your ideas and experiences brilliantly and in an individual way. A great gift.

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  5. Hey Joe, good to read you are exploring these matters. I totally understand the ‘grandiose to imposter’ cycle, I seem to be in constant competition with myself. I think I would be far worse if I didn’t have my home life to distract me. Good to ‘hear’ your voice again.

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