Some studies suggest that the impact of social media is neutral while others find that it can be seriously damaging depending on how the platform is used.1,2,3,4 Because low self-esteem can be harmful, one must understand the potential risks of social media and learn how to use it in an informed, intentional and healthy manner.
What Is Self-Esteem?
Self esteem is how much we value ourselves, which is influenced by a lot of factors. such as how we compare ourselves to others, how others respond to us, and how we wish we could be.5 It is often the case that how we see ourselves doesn’t match how we would like to be. We need to be able to recognize that discrepancy and make appropriate adjustments in striving to be our ideal selves. We need to have confidence in our actions and trust ourselves and our judgement.
Developing positive self-esteem and self-worth is crucial for effectively managing challenges, regulating emotions, building confidence and agency, preserving mental health and forming healthy relationships, most notably with oneself.
In the United States, self-esteem is typically based on the evaluation of oneself in six major areas:
- One’s inherited endowments, including intelligence, physical characteristics, and natural abilities
- Feeling likable and lovable
- Being a unique human being, of value, and worthy of respect
- Feeling in control and responsible for one’s life
- Moral virtue and integrity
- What one has achieved – One’s skills, possessions and successes5
The Cyber Self & Self-Esteem
Research suggests that problematic social media use can notably disrupt the development of healthy self-esteem for some individuals.3,6 The “cyber self” or who we are in a digital context, is an idealized self, and therefore an important aspect of self-concept. It allows for a potential “new you” online.
Youth and many adults are spending increasing amounts of time assembling, creating and experimenting with their “cyber selves” and it is often this virtual identity that is interacting with others, demands a bigger time investment and has the promise of going viral. This crafted self, reliant on a steady flow of carefully curated selfies, needs feedback and begs the question with each post, “will others like me like this?”6
8 Ways Social Media Affects Self-Esteem
One of the most consistent findings in the research is that the more time spent on social media platforms, the higher the risk for lower self-esteem.7 There is also substantial evidence that individuals with lower self-esteem as a baseline are at higher risk for problematic patterns of use with social networking as well as more negative impacts.8 Although vulnerable youth and adults are at higher risk for internet related problems, no one is immune to overuse and/or experiencing negative impacts.
The following list identifies and describes some of the most problematic features of social networking regarding the development and maintenance of healthy and positive self-esteem:
1. Constant Connection
Technology provides a compelling escape from the discomfort that quiet, solitude and reflection can bring. We slip into thinking that if we are always connected, we will feel less lonely. But actually, we are at greater risk because the opposite is true. If we are unable to be alone, we will be lonelier. More “connection” online can actually lead to less connection in our lives.
This is particularly problematic for kids, because the less conversation kids have, the less they will talk and understand when someone is talking to them. So, if we don’t teach our kids how to be alone, they will only know how to be lonely. Unplugging from devices and cultivating the capacity for mindfulness and solitude are essential for learning, self-discovery, self-regulation and achieving balance – all of which are essential ingredients for healthy self-esteem.
2. Too Much Feedback
We are not designed to integrate the social approval of hundreds of people, and yet we are compelled to design our lives based on a facade of perfection which is powerfully reinforced by the hits of dopamine that come from likes, comments, emojis, retweets etc. from hundreds of friends and followers, many of whom we’ve never met. Our brains become overloaded and will eventually process all of the perfectly filtered photos and carefully crafted posts something like this: Everyone else’s life is so much better than mine. I am such a loser! What is wrong with me?
Social media provides a platform to present our ideal selves to the world and determine whether or not the feedback we receive makes us likable, relevant, respected, admired or accepted. Some are compelled to start posting attention-seeking selfies and self-glorifying photos as a way of saying: Hey everyone, look at me, I have a life too! Unfortunately, this approach to feeling good about oneself never works, as high self-esteem does not come from outside sources, it comes from within.
3. Lack of Privacy & FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)
FOMO describes a specific type of social anxiety and stress based on a belief that a person is missing out on a social gathering, new experience, important information or exciting opportunity. Social media can induce FOMO as it is seductive in its design and offers its users constant connection, instant feedback, and a platform for self-promotion, all of which occur in a public forum. We now have technologies that pinpoint the location of individuals in our networks, monitor when someone is on-line, collect and utilize our data for marketing purposes and photograph (screenshot) private conversations making them easy to share, all of which contribute to FOMO.
Unfortunately, by trying to avoid the pain and discomfort of FOMO, many people (kids in particular) are at risk for developing compulsive social media habits which can subsequently lead to issues with identity development, confidence and self-esteem, depression and loneliness.6 Furthermore, many users do not realize that ALL of their online activity, even when deleted from a device, leaves a permanent footprint in cyberspace and the risk that the mistakes and poor decisions we make on-line could come back to haunt us later.
4. Social Comparison & Identity Confusion
Many people spend hours scrolling, posting, liking and commenting on various platforms. With the exception of certain chat rooms, special interest groups and on-line treatment, social networking discourages authentic expression of the vast range of human experience and emotions. Instead, it is a forum that emphasizes superficial and positive content and simplifies communication among users who routinely rely on emojis, comments, likes, re-tweets and memes to express themselves.
This is troubling when we consider that research shows that being comfortable with our vulnerabilities is central to happiness, creativity and productivity.9 Social media users can often feel that there is a disconnect between the public image they are maintaining on-line and their authentic self, but few may recognize that the stress, anxiety or depression they are experiencing is related to that conflict.
This discrepancy between maintaining a public persona based on comparisons with others and our genuine feelings and beliefs leaves many users feeling, confused, insecure and inadequate, all of which are indicators of low self-esteem.
5. Selfies & Increased Narcissism
In addition to identity confusion and low self-esteem resulting from heavy use of social media, some experts have indicated that increased narcissism of the user may also be related to heavy use.10 Narcissism can be defined as a somewhat grandiose self-love and self-centeredness, often expressed with unrealistic illusions about oneself. Self-promotion and self-marketing via images, posts and video clips, may promote vanity and various forms of egoistic behavior, typical of an individual with Narcissistic personality features.
Particularly important for the development of narcissistic conduct may be the “selfies” posted or shared on social media.10,11 Teens are particularly vulnerable to this, as they are busy forming their identity. On-line they can become consumed with their reflection hoping to discover themselves based on the feedback they receive from friends and followers. They are less likely to recognize and respect their own truth which not only confuses self-concept and undermines self-esteem, but increases the risk for developing narcissistic personality traits.
6. Communication & Decreased Empathy
Online, we react and respond differently due to a disinhibition effect, perceived anonymity, distance, more control and often no authority or monitoring. Conversations tend to be more superficial and less complex. Online communication does not require reflective listening, an essential skill in the development of non-verbal communication i.e. reading social cues, recognizing how our words impact someone else, interpreting body language, eye contact and tone of voice. These limitations impede the development of empathy and the intimacy we ultimately desire with others.
Face-to-face communication is generally more spontaneous and unpredictable, requires reciprocal dialogue, listening, and embracing silence. Live communication causes many people to feel overwhelmed and anxious, especially if they haven’t developed these skills, yet face to face encounters are the only way empathy can develop. If a person is averse to live conversations, they will struggle to achieve intimate connections, and this chronic interpersonal difficulty can undoubtedly diminish self-esteem.
According to a 2018 meta-analysis of 39 studies exploring teenagers, social media use and sexting, roughly 15% of kids ages 11-17 reported sending sexts and 28% reported receiving them. The study also found that 12% of teens had forwarded a sext without permission from the original sender and about 8% had received a sext without consent.12 In many states, sending sexually provocative photographs is illegal under child pornography laws and may result in jail time and/or having to register as a sex offender. As concerning as it is to see so many teens engaging in this manner, it is not surprising.
When we consider that healthy adolescent development is marked by sexual maturation and exploration and the development of the prefrontal cortex (responsible for executive functioning such as, self-regulation, critical thinking and decision making) the online pressure to explore and exploit sexuality in the public social media environment sets teens up for potentially disastrous consequences. If kids are coerced or manipulated to sexually expose themselves, this is not only potentially damaging to self-esteem and healthy sexual development but, for some individuals, may be traumatizing.
Another potential hazard of communication on-line is cyberbullying. This type of bullying can include slut shaming or body shaming on social media accounts, where bullies are able to hide behind accounts to put others down. A 2018 Pew Research study found that nearly 4 out of 10 social network users (36% of females and 26% of males) had experienced some form of cyberbullying.13 Any person targeted and bullied on-line, is at high risk for developing issues with self-esteem if not more serious difficulties with self-harm, depression and suicidal risk. Therefore, it is important to protect ourselves on-line, educate our children about potential risks on-line and what to do if they experience or witness cyberbullying.
Most importantly, kids who experience bullying on-line should understand that it is serious and that they have your support in deciding how to handle it. It is important that kids feel empowered and have agency in addressing the bullying, as many victims fear that bullying will get worse if an adult intervenes or the bully is confronted.
Populations Most Affected by Social Media
The same 2018 Pew Research survey found that girls are much more likely than boys to post selfies, with 60% of girls reporting they often or sometimes do this, compared with 30% of boys.13 Another study found that teenagers who spend more hours a day on social media have a greater risk for depression, and, again, the connection appears to be particularly pronounced for girls. In general, girls used social media more than boys, with 40% of girls, and 20% of boys, using it for more than three hours per day.
The study found that the more a person used social media, the greater their likelihood for experiencing depressive symptoms (including diminished self-esteem): 12% of light social media users and 38% of heavy social media users had depressive symptoms. The researchers found that 3 to 5 hours of social media per day was linked to a 26% increase in depression scores in girls and a 21% increase in boys, compared to kids who used social media from one to three hours/day. For more than five hours/day of social media, the increase in depression scores rose to 50% for girls and 35% for boys.14
Another recurrent finding in the research reveals that individuals already struggling with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, or social difficulties are more likely to suffer the negative impacts of social media and to develop problematic patterns of use.14 Additional research is needed to further delineate the impacts of social media use on self-esteem in various populations.
However, there is ample qualitative evidence in the literature that suggests adolescents, individuals with mental health issues, stressful family dynamics, poor self-concept and coping skills, or exposure to marginalization, bullying or attacks on their identity may be at the highest risk and suffer the biggest impact on self-esteem when engaging with social networks.
Can Social Media Have a Positive Impact on Self-Esteem?
The research and clinical observations in this area suggest that social media’s influence on self-esteem is most often negative; however, there are some uses of social media and protective factors that can preserve healthy self-esteem, mitigate the risks or even boost self-esteem.15
Positive uses of social media include:
- Keeping in touch with friends and family we cannot visit on a regular basis
- Sharing creative content and positive experiences
- Exchanging meaningful and important information with a larger audience
- Joining communities with common interests
- Ample real-world experience and activities
- Social Skills
- Confidence and popularity (in real life)
- Positive self-concept and self-esteem
- Stable mental health
- Healthy and Nurturing Relationships
When self-esteem is strong to begin with and there is plenty of real-world engagement with healthy relationships and support, many users of social media can navigate the challenges and potential risks fairly well, maintaining their self-esteem.15
Signs That Social Media Is Affecting Your Self-Esteem
It is difficult for research or personal self-assessment to definitively identify social media use as a CAUSE of diminished self-esteem. Instead, if you are concerned about your self-esteem, or that of your child, ask yourself how and to what degree social media may be contributing to how you are feeling. If you classify your involvement with social media as consistent or heavy, the likelihood is that your exposure is negatively impacting your self-esteem in some way.
Your self-esteem may be negatively affected by social media use if you are experiencing any of the following:
- Saying negative things and being critical about yourself
- Focusing on your shortcomings and ignoring your achievements
- Thinking other people are better than you
- Not accepting compliments
- Feeling depressed, anxious, ashamed or angry
- Sensitivity to criticism
- Social withdrawal
- Preoccupation with personal problems
- Increased or excessive self-doubt
- Excessive dependence on others for feedback and validation
- Physical symptoms such as fatigue, stomach aches, insomnia, and headaches
- Reluctance to try new things
How to Set Healthy Social Media Boundaries & Boost Your Self-Esteem
The first step in making any change or improvement is recognizing there’s a problem. If you have determined that you or a loved one is suffering from diminished self-esteem and feeling stuck, consider the following list of strategies for setting healthy boundaries with social media and boosting your self-esteem.
The following are tips for setting healthy boundaries with social media use:
- Understand the risks, benefits, impacts and opportunities of digital media
- Be clear about your own beliefs regarding technology use
- Speak with your children/teens/partner about technology
- Establish clear expectations and limits regarding use
- Enforce limits consistently; Design a contract
- Emphasize and explain the need for unstructured time, play and real-world experiences
- Do not blindly follow social norms
- Consider a technology holiday or technology detox
- Establish mandatory unplugging times and places i.e. no smartphone use in the car, at dinner or at family and social gatherings
- Do not sleep with your phone or tablet
- When with friends limit or omit screen time
- Do not allow electronics in the bedroom
- Turn off notifications
- Remove apps from your phone
- Seek support if you are having difficulty making changes
The following are tips for boosting self-esteem:
- Unplug and connect with your own emotions, values and beliefs
- Trust your instincts.
- Engage in real life experiences.
- Practice coping with boredom and embracing solitude
- Challenge bad thoughts about yourself
- Practice self-care
- Relax and reflect
- Set goals for yourself
- Provide help to someone else; volunteer
- Try a different perspective
- Explore new interests and experiences
- Surround yourself with people who make you feel good
- Accept yourself
- Keep visual reminders of things that make you feel good
- Seek support if you are feeling stuck and unable to make the changes you desire
When & How to Get Help for Self-Esteem Issues
If you have tried some or all of the above-mentioned self-help strategies and are still having a difficult time breaking your pattern of social media dependence, you may want to speak with a professional who is trained to help you make the changes you desire. Compulsive behaviors, like internet addiction or social media addiction, can be very difficult to break and so the more support and guidance you have during the process of reducing your use will increase the likelihood that you are successful.
Counseling can also help you examine and change the thoughts and behaviors that may be fueling your internet dependence and provide you with healthier coping strategies and support. In addition, if you believe that underlying problems, such as depression, anxiety, loneliness, or drug or alcohol abuse, may be contributing to your internet dependence, counseling can address these problems as well.
How to Find a Therapist
There are many ways to find a therapist or counselor if you have determined that’s necessary for some additional support. It is often helpful to get a recommendation from a friend or family member if that is an option, or you can find a good provider in your area by using an online directory or contacting your health insurance company for a list of providers.
Social Media & Self Esteem Infographics