How social media use shapes your sense of self-worth

What I learned from changing my online presence

Active and passive social media use can inform your wellness.

The average person will spend a total of six years and eight months on social media in their lifetime—that’s a staggering commitment. 

Whether it’s looking through Instagram on the bus or watching TikToks before bed, most of us spend a considerable portion of our days plugged into social media. The amount of time we spend scrolling through dashboards and making posts begs an important question: how does social media affect who we are and what we think about ourselves?

A recent study found that using social media passively—reading through comments and looking at posts—is associated with depressive symptoms and feelings of worthlessness. However, these negative effects can be mitigated by engaging with social media more actively: liking posts, creating content, and responding to other peoples’ posts.

When I examined my own social media use, I decided I fit best into the ‘passive’ category of users. Apart from liking other people’s content and posting the occasional photo, I was largely on the sidelines, observing posts without much interaction. I wondered: could changing my social media habits affect how I think about myself?

I decided to take on a personal challenge: I would try both ditching social media and using it actively, and see if either made me feel better than I did as a passive user.

Part one: The social media cleanse

The first part of my experiment was disconnecting. Stepping back from my accounts allowed me to disengage from environments that hijacked my insecurities and fueled damaging social comparison. When I stepped away from social media, I was able to focus on my own goals and small successes rather than compare myself to other people.

It feels as if social media algorithms relentlessly seek out my interests and then use them to remind me how short I fall of my ideals. Hello, feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness—two factors that contribute to depression.

For me, my interest in fitness also cues the Instagram algorithm to show me pictures of fit influencers whom I will never look like. It can be overwhelming and discouraging to be bombarded by ideals that are out of reach. What those posts don’t show is the time and effort that went into working out and meal planning—not to mention the eating disorders and Photoshop that may be lurking below the surface.

Beautiful women on social media shouldn’t make me feel bad about myself. Life is a journey full of ups and downs and social media is a highlight reel, not the full story. When I took a break from my accounts, I was taking a break from unproductive comparisons and self-doubt.

Part two: Active and intentional engagement

When I reactivated my social media account, I set goals for myself to use social media intentionally. I decided I would post one photo each week on Instagram until the end of the year and strive to use the platform to message my friends and comment on their posts.

I found myself enjoying posting more often—even if I didn’t have enough going on in my life to post something interesting every week, brainstorming posts and taking photos gave me a creative outlet. That being said, sometimes I felt anxious because I wasn’t only posting beautiful and impressive moments, and it felt like my casual feed was out of place amongst the carefully curated ones of the people I follow.

Many of the photos I posted to meet my weekly quota had emotional significance to me. I posted pictures doing things I loved and snapshots of good times with friends. However, posting these pictures added an extra layer of insecurity, which tainted my originally happy memories—I was worried about what people thought. When I look at my profile now, I feel like there is a stark contrast between my mundanely happy life and the seemingly blissful lives of Instagram models.

Overall, I found that actively engaging with social media made me feel better than using it passively, but I wasn’t any happier than when I had no social media at all. In the future, my goal is to use social media more actively, but continue to limit my time using these platforms every day to focus on my real life.

If you have social media, try not to be a lurker. Engaging actively with social media isn’t just about posting often, it’s also about being intentional in your use of the platforms and making an effort to interact with your friends. Meaningful social media use can also be taking a step back and intentionally disengaging from content that is harming you.

Social media isn’t always detrimental to your self-image—it’s how you use it that matters.

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