Social media use has its pros and cons. While Facebook and social media can make it easier to stay in touch with friends and family, using social media to compare your life with other people’s can be a major pitfall. Not only are you not getting an accurate (read: realistic) idea of what’s going on in other people’s lives, but carefully curated social media images can mess with your mental health and self-esteem. Now, researchers also say that engaging in a lot of social comparison on Facebook can actually make you feel physically sick.
According to a new study published in the journal Heliyon, social media use and your perception of your physical health can get complicated. Researchers found that Facebook use and social comparison resulted in an increased awareness of physical symptoms.
“More people are spending more time on Facebook and social comparisons are an inevitable part of the experience,” said lead study author and health psychologist, Bridget Dibb, PhD, in a recent press release. “It is important to be more aware of how this activity affects us, and how it may change how we feel about ourselves, given the strong link between well-being, quality of life, and physical health.”
“Our most important finding was that participants who feel Facebook is an important part of their lives also report more symptoms, linking social comparison activity with the perception of worse physical health,” said Dibb.
Social comparison happens when you compare yourself with other people in order to “evaluate and self-enhance,” according to the study. If you’re feeling insecure or uncertain of yourself, you might be especially prone to this, the study’s authors write. “Upward comparison occurs when we compare with someone who we perceive as ‘better-off’ than ourselves, and downward comparison occurs when we compare with someone we feel is ‘worse-off’ than ourselves.”
But the impact of social comparison on your health can get a little convoluted, the study’s authors found. While you might think that ‘upward comparison’ messes with your self-confidence while the ‘downward’ version gives you a boost, researchers found that their findings were less straightforward. Essentially, it’s not so much social comparison, but how you interpret and make meaning out of that comparison, that can affect how you think about your overall health.
In terms of the impact on physical health, Forbes writes that users in the study who engaged in social media comparison were more likely to be aware of physical symptoms like sleep disturbances and aches and pains. What’s not clear is whether feeling unwell results in more social media usage in the first place, or if social media usage can mess with your perception of your health. Whether or not Facebook is actually bad for your physical health is still a matter up for debate — and more research.
“We are still learning about the positive and negative effects of social media use, and causality is an important area for further study," Dr. Dibbs noted in the press release. Refinery29 notes, however, that previous research does indicate that social media users who feel anxious as a result of social comparison might be more at risk for respiratory infections. Stress and anxiety can negatively impact the immune system, says Medical News Today, and researchers suggest that problems with mental health could eventually lead to physical illnesses as well, according to Refinery29.
So, while it’s unclear as to whether or not (or how) social media usage actually affects your physical health, research does support the notion that social comparison can get toxic for your overall well-being. If you find that being on social media is leaving you feeling worse off, it can’t hurt to step back a bit and evaluate your usage.