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Comparisons: How social media impacts Gen Z mental health

 In Mental Health

Of the almost 10,000 young people ages 13-25 we surveyed for the 2022 State of Religion & Young People: Mental Health report, more than 75% say they use social media at least three hours a day of that group, 44% say they use it at least five hours a day. Thirty percent of young people say social media is a big part of their daily life and it creates a sense of community for them. Forty percent of young people say it’s a creative outlet for them. Yet, the amount of time spent on these platforms makes it possible for young people to experience how social media can both help and harm mental health. 

When President Theodore Roosevelt (and others since) said “comparison is the thief of joy”, they probably weren’t talking about social media’s impact on young people. Yet, in our research, we’ve heard time and time again how seeing others living their best lives on these platforms can be harmful to young people’s mental health. Even if they understand that what’s presented on social media is often an incomplete picture at best, it’s not enough to counteract the implicit suggestion that life could and should be lived a certain way. 

Here’s what a few young people had to say about how social media and the tendency to compare to others impacts their mental health:

 “I feel like a lot of people my age - they use social media a lot. So maybe just the images we see nowadays, we're comparing ourselves to people that maybe we don't look like and we're wanting to look like. Just seeing the positive aspects of people's life that they portray online - it's not always the negative things that may be happening in their lives. So just seeing that type of thing, I guess it just impacts your mental health and maybe you perceive your life isn't going the way others is and then it can just negatively affect you.”

—Alessia, 22 

 “I think we're super caught up in how other people's what other people are doing. How do we look? How good is our skin? How good is like our body types? How much are we like preaching about the world? I think there's that who follows? Who like, do they like me, do they not? Why did they block me? It’s crazy. So I think it's very negative.”

—Alexandria, 18 

In regard to social media, I'm very much a feminist and I really support women doing whatever they want to their bodies, but it's also kind of the glorification of plastic surgery, body modification. And really it is a toxic site to constantly see people that you won't ever really look like unless you put really the money into it. And a lot of people don't have the access to that. You know, people have access to the internet, but they won't have access to the gym or healthy food or, you know, time to even do home workouts or space to do homework outs. And I think that could also really greatly affect your mental health by seeing what everybody else has all of the time versus what you don't have. And life is, you know, comparison is the thief of joy, but everyone compares themselves constantly to everything. And what else are you going to do on social media?”

—Elena, 20 

As we head into the holidays and see our timelines flooded with people opening lavish gifts, modeling designer Winter gear and spending Christmas on the beach, the temptation to compare yourself and your life to them may increase. Consider taking these steps to reduce the mental strain: 

  • Remind yourself of reality. The average American woman wears a size 16-18. The median income in the U.S. is just over $70,000. The number of U.S. passports has risen dramatically in recent years, but half of Americans still don’t own one. When faced with content that generates comparisons, think critically about what may not be visible. Did the person have professional hair and makeup done before those photos were shot? Did that person work a second job to be able to afford that trip? Remind yourself there’s absolutely a less glamourous and realistic story behind the scenes. 
  • Curate your feed. The last month of the year is a great time to do a little digital housecleaning. If there are people you follow and their content triggers negative feelings, hide or unfollow them. If you find that content that suggests certain body standards is especially problematic, seek out accounts that celebrate diverse body types, affirm body positivity, or show people of different shapes and sizes living their best lives. Check out this list for suggestions
  • Close the app and put the phone down. This is a great time of year to tap into your offline life. Plan a get together with friends, volunteer for a holiday cause or connect with a neighbor or family member. Use the holidays as a way to strengthen your relationships face to face.  
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