Anti-Social Media and Social Comparison

The media has been selling social comparison for generations. Imagine it’s 1928 and you’re paging through the local gazette where you learn about a newly discovered medical condition.

Social Insecurity

No matter how charming you may be or how fond of you your friends are, you cannot expect them to put up with halitosis (unpleasant breath) forever. They may be nice to you–but it is an effort.

Listerine Halitosis ad from 1928
Unexcusable!

Read the Facts: 1/3 had halitosis. 68 hairdressers state that about every third woman, many of them from the wealthy classes, is halitoxic. Who should know better than they?

Recognizing these truths, nice people end any chance of offending by systematically rinsing the mouth with Listerine. Every morning. Every night. And between the times when necessary, especially before meeting others.

Social Comparison Sells

In her article “How Halitosis Became a Medical Condition With a ‘Cure’” Laura Clark writes, “Ultimately, the bad-breath campaign was so successful that marketing historians refer to it as the ‘halitosis appeal’—shorthand for using fear to sell product.”

Fear of TV

One evening I came home exhausted from my advertising job to watch the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s It. It aired during a Nielsen Ratings month so the miniseries benefited from heavy promotion. The hook for me was Tim Curry playing Pennywise, the killer clown.

Tim Curry as Pennywise
The scariest thing about Stephen King’s It was how bad it was.

I thought the show was lame. Whatever I imagined it would be, it turned out not to be. It wasn’t holding my attention, so I flipped the remote during the commercials hoping to find something better. As bad as It was, the shows on the other channels were worse.

I had no expectation that I was about to witness a moment of television that I would never forget.

I returned from one unsuccessful channel surfing commercial break to find Pennywise had morphed into a giant unterrifying sewer spider, and one of our lackluster heroes took aim at It with a makeshift slingshot. This was a moment of TV so bad I swore at the set and pulled the cord out of the wall. Enough!

Unplugging Social Comparison

The unintended consequences of my separation from commercial television surprised me.

I thought that I watched TV to relax, but I felt more relaxed without it. My paycheck hadn’t grown, but without constant reminders of things I couldn’t afford, I suddenly had enough money.

I worried that I might miss out on the next big whatever, but my co-workers kept plugged in, I heard it through the grapevine, without the commercials.

Social Media and Social Comparison

I felt a similar reduction of social insecurity and increased well-being when I pulled way back from social media.

“More and more studies suggest that electronic communication—unlike the face-to-face interaction it may replace—has negative consequences for mental health,” writes Jean Twenge in her Newsweek article about the 10th anniversary of the iPhone. “One study asked college students to report on their mood five times a day. The more they had used Facebook, the less happy they were. However, feeling unhappy didn’t lead to more Facebook use, which suggests that Facebook was causing unhappiness, not vice versa.”

Curating Your Life

As a recovering advertiser, I sometimes find it hard to resist Amazon’s share your purchase feature, which allows you to dazzle your friends by posting what you just bought. My most recent purchase was replacement bungee lacing to repair my zero gravity chair. Exciting, right?

Regular participation in social media requires a mindset of judging post-worthy events. Real-life friends may grow tedious in our eyes if they post things that irritate or bore us. We may grow self-conscious about our appearance sifting through photo after photo trying to find the one in which we look best. If we post about something that’s important to us and it doesn’t get enough likes or favorable comments, it might make us wonder about our friendships. And it’s hard to be fully present even in life’s happiest moments if we have to stop, snap a photo, and upload.

The only real winner here is the social media platform, which uses your relationships to turn your friendships into uncompensated sales pitches.

Take the Ten Minute Test

The next time you’re plugged in to media, social or otherwise, take ten minutes to consider whether the program you’re watching or posts the posts you’re reading make you feel more or less content with your quality of life. Ask whether they increase or diminish your satisfaction with the world around you.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.