Did your recent scroll leave you feeling green-eyed? Do pictures of your cousin's social life, your school friend's wardrobe or your colleague's prestigious work award make your teeth clench and your stomach tighten?
It’s great to catch up with your BFF’s updates, but sometimes social media makes you feel a particular kind of way—envious.
If this sounds familiar, you aren’t alone.
People spend a lot of time on social media. For US teens, around four hours a day is normal. For working-age adults, around two-and-a-half hours a day is dedicated to social media scrolling, liking and commenting. That means we're spending over 17 hours a week comparing our lives with other people's highlight reels. No wonder we feel envious.
But how do you know if social media is to blame for your piercing envy and not something else? And what can you do to keep those unpleasant pangs at bay?
We talked to three experts to find out.
What is social media envy?
According to Dr. Maureen Coyle, Ph.D. and applied social psychologist, social media envy is the act of “upward social comparisons.” This is when we compare ourselves to those we perceive as better than us in some way.
Since we already think that person is doing better than we are, comparing our life to theirs feeds into our feelings of inadequacy. It's why a simple social media scroll can leave us feeling less attractive, less muscular, less popular, less Instagram-worthy, and less able to maintain the rich social life we feel we’re lacking.
Doris Fullgrabe, MSc, culture trainer, personality-based coach and MBTI® Master Practitioner, agrees with this analysis. She defines social media envy as “a feeling of inferiority, frustration and resentment triggered by the desire to want what someone else has, be it possessions, physical attributes, achievements, or attention.”
You know you have social media envy when "scrolling through your feed leaves you feeling unhappy with yourself or your life when you see how others have the kind of homes, jobs, vacations, creative skills, lips, looks, bodies, friendships, followers, comments etc you want but don’t have,” Fullgrabe says.
Other indicators include resentment, FOMO and bitterness toward other people's good fortune—a trifecta of emotions that can make you feel like you're just not good enough or are missing out on life.
What causes social media envy?
Envy is a complicated emotion.
While some regard it as a positive motivator to change, improve and to better yourself, others, like Coyle, believe the root cause is low self-esteem. In the grips of envy, people “feel a lesser sense of self-worth.”
“We're not as sure in ourselves, which can lead us to see all the negatives in ourselves and gloss over the negatives in others,” Coyle explains. This polarized view isn’t healthy, but recognizing it is an essential first step to dealing with it.
Meanwhile, Dr. Patrick Wanis, Ph.D. and human behavior expert, speaks to envy being a universal issue rather than a specific type of self-view. “Every single one of us suffers to some extent from the same core issue—at a subconscious level, you don't think you're good enough. You think there's something wrong with you: you're not worthy, you're not lovable, you're not special, you're inadequate, you fear abandonment, you fear rejection,” he says.
Wanis, who focuses on trauma healing in his practice, argues that everyone “has been programmed” with feelings of envy and not feeling good enough through the difficult events in their life. These events can be as banal as your parents comparing you to your siblings all the time.
It sounds humdrum, but scenarios like this can make social media comparisons much more intense, since you learned to compare yourself to others at a young age.
Are some personalities more susceptible?
Possibly, but the jury's out.
Research definitely shows that Extraverts have higher levels of social media usage, in the sense that they post more photos and have more friends. Another study found a correlation between higher follower counts and people who scored high in the Big Five traits of Agreeableness and Extraversion.
Those who scored high in Neuroticism had fewer followers.
“Extraverts enjoy social interaction and attention and are reward-seeking, so results showing they’re more likely to engage in liking and commenting, have more Facebook friends and spend more time online are not surprising,” Fullgrabe says.
But does it follow that Extraverts are more likely to experience social media envy due to their higher usage?
Coyle doesn't think so. In fact, it's people who score high on Neuroticism who may suffer more with the mood-plummeting effects of social media envy.
Neurotics have a tendency to feel strong negative emotions such as anger, anxiety or depression. So while they spend less time on social media, they might end up fixating on comparing themselves to others when they do log on—a pattern that Coyle calls “recurring intrusive thoughts.”
Tips to overcome social media envy
While there’s no overnight cure to social media envy, you can learn to focus less on the (photoshopped) lives of others when scrolling your feed. Here's what our experts recommend:
1. Give yourself a reality check
“With social media, reference groups vary from your high-school friends to actual celebrities or even royalty in other countries,” Fullgrabe says. “Social media envy is likely rooted in comparing yourself upward to reference groups not lateral to your current circumstances.”
In other words, you're trying to fit in with people who have a completely different identity, wealth status and lifestyle to you. “[This] is artificial and feeds into an unrealistic self-concept, ironically perpetuating the cycle of focusing on what others have that you’re still missing,” Fullgrabe warns.
2. Curb your usage and curate your feeds
Think hard about who makes you envious and if it’s worth following them. Fullgrabe believes it’s best to “unfollow the people who trigger your defeatist envy.” She also suggests turning off notifications and taking “periodic detoxes” such as “no-screen Sundays” or limiting yourself to checking social media once daily.
If you feel “withdrawal symptoms,” she adds, you can take notes to write down your thoughts as a way to cope.
If you find it tough to simply step away from social media, Coyle recommends you curate your feeds to feel less social media envy. She advises looking for “information-based” content that involves “learning a skill or learning about a topic that interests you." The algorithms will then kick in to serve you more of this content, which is never a bad thing.
3. Balance your lifestyle, on and off-screen
You already know this, but everyone should be striving for a balanced lifestyle to eliminate negativity.
“Balance time on the apps with real-life activities like nature walks, meeting friends, or joining offline communities,” Fullgrabe says. “Make something. Take an art class, throw some pottery, plant some flowers or bake a cake, but don’t post any pictures of it. Just let the experience live in your brain and body.”
Another good option is volunteering for a cause you’re passionate about. Volunteering makes you proud of yourself and raises your self-esteem in ways that are not connected to envy, Fullgrabe says.
4. Be kind to yourself
Wanis doesn’t like the term “self-esteem” since he considers it an ever-evolving idea. “The best thing you can do is focus on self-compassion rather than self-esteem,” he explains.
Self-compassion is a type of emotional resilience. When you adopt a self-compassionate mindset, you are able to forgive your mistakes and failures, focus on personal growth, accept yourself and tone down negative self-talk. You'll be less likely to envy others, since you feel solid in your own self-worth.
5. Unplug entirely
“If you compare yourself, there's always someone better off than you. There's always someone who has more than you. There's always someone who has more accomplishments than you. You'll never, ever be happy with yourself because you'll always be longing for more and nothing will ever be enough,” Wanis warns.
If you cannot deal with the negative consequences of that, then the ultimate remedy must be to hard pivot away from these platforms. “If you’re suffering from envy and it's devastating, and you feel depressed, and you're losing interest in life, and you think you're a worse person than you were before, then go off [social media] immediately and seek professional help to deal with the root cause,” he concludes.
Even if the clean break is temporary, you'll find it easier to focus on yourself and your own life goals when you're not comparing yourself to others online.