Social Media Likes Can Change The Way You Perceive Reality And Yourself

Psychologists discuss how adolescents use social media for social comparison and feedback-seeking.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | May 9, 2022

A new study published in The Journal of Psychology explains that social media likes might hold a special social and affective relevance for adolescents with high social comparison and feedback-seeking motivations. The research suggests that such adolescents may also become more emotionally susceptible to the feedback received.

I recently spoke to lead author María Dolores Sánchez and M. Carmen Herrera to understand how likes on an online platform can significantly affect our perception of ourselves. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to study the role of social comparison and feedback-seeking on Instagram, how did you study it, and what did you find?

The main factor that has drawn me to study the role of social comparison and feedback-seeking (SCFS) processes on Instagram is how Instagram promotes dynamics of appearance and impression in which the most important thing is no longer to interact with others but to show other people the beautiful aspects of our life.

Instagram users carefully select what aspects of themselves to show in their profiles and self-manage their image with a positive bias to generate the desired impression.

In this way, Instagram is configured as a platform where users are constantly exposed to social comparison and feedback-seeking processes, which become particularly relevant during adolescence when identity-building processes take place.

Specifically, Likes represent numeric evaluative feedback and an essential index of popularity among users — a high number of Likes seems to indicate greater social approval and more popularity.

However, individual differences based on social comparison and feedback-seeking may affect how users process information contained on social networking sites and, consequently, how it affects the viewer's psychological well-being.

Therefore, we considered it necessary to analyze the impact of Likes received on Instagram posts on emotional well-being of users depending on the tendency to exhibit social comparison and feedback-seeking, with the purpose of delving into these issues and contributing to the development of prevention and intervention programs based on the responsible use of social media sites.

To achieve this goal, we used a vignette methodology.

It consisted of instructing participants to imagine a hypothetical situation when they posted a photo on Instagram, and then, received a few likes or many likes, depending on the experimental group to which they belonged.

Next, we showed the participants a set of facial emojis expressing positive and negative emotions and asked them to indicate those that best represented how they felt after reading the hypothetical situation.

The result highlighted that adolescents receiving few Likes in the hypothetical situation showed greater negative emotions and lesser positive emotions than adolescents receiving many Likes.

Moreover, we observed these emotional effects were amplified when adolescents showed a high tendency to social comparison and feedback-seeking. That is, receiving a few Likes on an Instagram post was associated with an increase in negative emotions and a decrease in positive emotions mainly in those people using the social network site for social comparison and feedback-seeking.

Your study talks about the advantages of social networking sites to psychological well-being. What are some of the general disadvantages it can have on psychological well being?

People use social media sites like Instagram as a means of self-regulation.

That is, these sites generate resources that motivate individuals to counteract their deficiencies and meet their psychological and social needs.

However, when individuals fail to meet their needs and expectations through the use of these sites, they may experience long-term psychological problems such as loss of self-esteem, feelings of loneliness, low perceived social support, depression and anxiety, among others.

Moreover, the intensive use of social media has been associated with increased body image concerns, self- objectification, social comparison, envy, as well as the likelihood of suffering from and engaging in cyberbullying.

What makes the social comparison on social networking sites 'unflattering'? Are there situations where this kind of social comparison could be positive/beneficial?

The dynamics of appearance and impression on social sites seem to generate a culture of refinement and polishing in relation to the content posted. Users are involved in a reciprocal process known as "social surveillance" whereby they can not only carefully manage their posts but also check the content that others post on their profiles and their own updates from the perspectives of others.

The dynamics of social surveillance seem to have a significant impact on users because they conceptualize what is normal, desirable, and popular in the online community, and consequently, they engage in social comparison and feedback-seeking processes on that basis.

Thus, people on social media evaluate themselves using similar people as a source of comparison on ability, capacity, or appearance.

Given posts tend to be positively biased, people often perceive themselves as worse and experience unfavorable emotional states (e.g., frustration, anger, envy,) as a result of these self-assessments, which, in the long- term, can lead to severe psychological problems.

We believe that social comparison processes could be more beneficial if there were more positive models and healthy referents in social sites that encouraged users to achieve what is perceived as desirable, but promoting real expectations.

That is, comparison targets showing attainable lifestyles and standards in society and motivating individuals to direct their behavior towards achieving their goals.

In these circumstances, although the individuals consider that they are in a worse situation than the comparison target, the result of the self-assessment could be more positive for the users' development and psychological well-being.

On the other hand, social comparison can be also beneficial when individuals directly perceive that they are in a better situation than the object of comparison and, consequently, experience positive states.

The paper identifies the two types of social comparison: social comparison downwards or social comparison upwards. In your opinion, is one thought process more damaging than the other?

Individuals evaluate their own progress and position in several domains of their lives by comparing themselves with others, finding their social position and decreasing their uncertainty.

When people make social comparisons, they perceive whether they are doing better (i.e., social comparison downwards) or worse (i.e., social comparison upwards) than the comparison target.

If they consider that they are worse off than the target, it may be reflected in an increase in negative emotions.

For example, social comparison upwards leads to feelings of frustration and envy, which in turn, may increase the psychological discomfort and the probability of engaging in cyberbullying as a strategy to obtain more social status among peers.

In contrast, social comparison downwards promotes a favorable emotional state.

Therefore, social comparison upwards is a more damaging thought process, mainly during the adolescent stage when adolescents develop a greater self-awareness and concern for image and social acceptance.

How do people self regulate using social networking sites? Could you briefly elaborate on this.

People use social media as a means to meet individual needs of a psychological and social nature, such as maintaining friendships or meeting people, looking for potential partners, entertainment, expression, or sharing experiences.

As a result of meeting these needs, individuals improve their psychological well-being.

For example, they experience increases in self-esteem, show greater perception of support and social acceptance, greater satisfaction with life, and in general, promote personal development.

Thus, social networking sites may promote numerous psychological benefits when people use them responsibly.

How do individuals counteract their deficiencies by using social networking sites to meet their psychological needs?

To deepen this issue, I will give several examples.

An individual with an introverted personality or relationship difficulties could use the social media to socialize and establish new relationships, given the facilities offered by the social media; that is, the possibility of feeling protected by a screen, being able to manage one's image online, or having more time to formulate a question or answer during digital communication.

In this way, this person would be satisfying their needs for intimacy.

Similarly, a person with high concern about her body image might carefully self-manage her appearance in her social posts, by editing the photos or applying filters, to receive the expected evaluative feedback and thus counteract her psychological distress or worries.

What are the negative effects of using social media for gossip, increasing social contacts, and seeking social approval on psychological well-being?

Gossip, social interaction, and storage motivations do not necessarily affect psychological well-being negatively.

However, our results suggest high scores on these motivations lead to an intensive use of Instagram, which has been previously associated with numerous drawbacks among adolescents: feeling concerned about others' judgment, isolation, depression, low self-esteem, or body image concern.

Furthermore, we observed that these same motivations explain the association between social comparison and feedback-seeking and the intensive use of Instagram.

That is, people with a high tendency to social comparison and feedback-seeking seem to use Instagram more frequently for gossiping, increasing social interaction, and storing online content, which, in turn, lead to an intensive use of this social networking site.

Therefore, our concern is based on determining what factors predispose to the intensive use of social media to promote the development of programs aimed at preventing and alleviating the harmful effects that their high consumption has during adolescence.

Did something unexpected emerge from your research? Something beyond the hypothesis?

Beyond our hypothesis, we found differences based on age in tendency to social comparison and feedback-seeking.

Specifically, adolescents in mid-late stage (i.e., ranged from 15 to 18 years) showed higher levels of social comparison and feedback-seeking than adolescents in early stage (i.e., ranged from 13 to 15 years).

This is consistent with the fact that social comparison processes and social reinforcement seeking become particularly relevant during late adolescence when identity construction processes take place.

In addition, results also showed older adolescents were more motivated to use Instagram to store online content than younger adolescents.

Peer support and acceptance is a major concern during middle and late adolescence. Therefore, adolescents in this stage may engage to a greater extent in reciprocal processes of 'social surveillance' and seeking approval based on the content posted on Instagram by oneself and by others.

What significant gender differences did you find within your research?

We found gender differences in the social interaction, evasion, and gossip motivations.

Specifically, adolescent females seem to use Instagram to higher degrees for interacting with others, for evasion, and gossiping compared to adolescent males.

Similarly, the results showed females report more intensive use of Instagram than males.

Our findings are in line with previous research suggesting adolescent females are more motivated to use Instagram, spend more time online, and visit their profile more times per day compared to what adolescent males do.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on these topics in the future?

Yes. Instagram has undergone numerous and continuous updates, which have enabled new activities and developments within the social network.

For example, Instagram recently has incorporated the option to hide the number of likes to the rest of the community, making this data visible only to the user. This new Instagram feature is a very interesting factor that we will address in our future research.