I can’t decide if I have a healthy relationship with Facebook or not. Like everyone else, I sometimes fall down the rabbit hole of my newsfeed, clicking on links with the same curiosity that I have with the supermarket checkout line tabloids (except somehow I’m able to avoid picking them up). The next thing I know, I’ve lost ten minutes and I haven’t gained anything tangible from my time.

Facebook has brought with it some wonderful things, too. It’s been easier to stay in touch with my far-flung network of friends that have moved am over the world. I see baby pictures and graduation photos along with cute anecdotes about work and family. Sometimes it feels like my local neighborhood is bigger than it really is.

There is a dark side to these posts of smiling, happy people, though. A steady stream of petty people’s vacations, job promotions, and successful kids can easily shift from enjoyment to inadequacy. Instead of living vicariously through others, they can serve as fodder for our own insecurities and neuroticisms.

Social Comparison and Social Media

Facebook is great at presenting everyone’s good side because it only shows you what we choose to share. We see the awards ceremonies for other people’s kids, but we don’t see the parental anxiety from worrying about a child’s mental health issues. We see great date nights, but not the worry about finances. Looking at Facebook (or Instagram or any other social media site) is like watching someone’s vacation slides or by at the pictures hanging inside someone’s home; we only see what they want us to see.

Yet, as we scroll through our newsfeed, we run into a more insidious danger than clickbait. We might start making social comparisons to others and worry if we are as good parents as others. This steady stream of happy families can push us to be obsessed with making sure that we appear to be the perfect parents on Facebook. And, while you may not realize it, sites like Facebook are designed to encourage us to do just that.

Social comparison is a natural part of human behavior. We look at the behavior of others and then use it to evaluate ourselves. It’s part of our brain’s mechanisms that help us both protect ourselves and assess the threats in the world around us. We use social comparison when we are checking out the car our neighbor is driving or thinking about whether we could run faster than that jogger we just passed.

Social comparison can help encourage us to do better and boost our self-esteem. It can also knock us down when we sense that we are inadequate or inferior to others. If we use the information gained from a comparison to motivate ourselves, then it is helpful (e.g. I’m working harder than she is). But, if it makes us think about barriers that we can’t overcome (e.g. I’ll never have his networking skills), then it can have a negative impact.

Social media puts social comparison into overdrive because of the frequency with which it happens. We are constantly seeing things from others that push us into social comparison mode. It might be subtle, like a humble brag (i.e. I’m such a good dad because I drive my kid to practice at the crack of dawn) or just the sharing of unique experience. Either way, we start thinking about ourselves in relation to that other person.

I Shared What?

Turn now to your own posts. With cameras constantly at our fingertips, we are always on the lookout for the perfect picture to post. We might want to genuinely share or we might be driven to do a little humble bragging and “subtly” call attention to ourselves. Then, we keep checking our notifications to see if others have like the post or shared.

And our kids are watching us. Have yours asked you yet how many likes a particular picture of them got? Or are they curious about the comments on that Instagram post? Like any other behavior, what they see us do online, they will take as an example of what they should be doing, too.

A Step Towards Healthier Social Media Parenting

questions for helping to make better social media decisions as a parentNow, I’m not recommending that you delete your social media accounts (even if I tempted from time to time to do just that). Instead, ask yourself these simple questions before your next post:

  • Is it worth pausing to post online or can I just enjoy the moment?
  • Is this something that I would want to see on one of my friend’s post?
  • Am I trying to keep up with the Jones’ by posting this?
  • Would my child want this online?

Thinking about these questions can help us navigate the impulse for social comparison online and help us build healthier social media habits as parents. If you think about these things, you can encourage yourself to give yourself permission to live life as if it is more than an Instagram post. You can help yourself be present for your kids and remember that world lives outside your phone. Throw in a daily gratitude practice to your life so you can be thankful for what is in your life and it might not matter what other people are posting.

Then you go back to looking at the smiling pictures of your old friends’ kids.