One More Email, No Less Loneliness 

This is Part One of a three-part series. 
People used to believe that when we start to compete in any sport or game, such as football, chess or hang gliding, we compare ourselves with the masters of the game in order to give ourselves something ambitious to aim toward. 

Until Leon Festinger came along. 

Be Good, But Not Better Than Me 

In the 1950s, Festinger, a social psychologist, found that rather than comparing themselves to the masters, chess players compared themselves to other players of similar ability. Festinger wondered why. He discovered that when our self-esteem is low, we tend to look for similar others to compare ourselves to in an attempt to feel worthy

Sound familiar? It is. In a clever study, University of California at Irvine professor Melissa Mazmanian found that the people with the lowest self-confidence are the ones who are constantly connected to and overuse their phones

It’s no coincidence that Festinger developed his theory of social comparison just after the introduction of the only other technology adopted with a speed comparable to the smartphone: the television. As with the smartphone, the rapid adoption of the television led to some surprising behaviors. Let’s take a look. 

Screen-Induced Envy: Nothing New 

After the popularization in the US of the television in the early 1950s, an innovative study led by USC social psychologist Karen Hennigan (conducted three decades later) examined the larceny theft rate following its mass penetration. What made this study so compelling was its natural control group: citizens were prohibited from owning televisions until four years later in some US cities due to a ban on TVs in those cities instituted by local city councils. 

In total, the study compared the rate of small crimes such as bicycle theft and pickpocketing in thirty-four cities immediately after the television became widely available in 1951 and another thirty-four cities in which televisions were banned until a federal ruling overturned the ban four years later. 

The results of the study were astonishing: there was a marked increase in the larceny rate in the first group of cities in 1951, due primarily to an escalation in small crimes such as bicycle theft and pickpocketing. The second group of cities in which televisions were not on sale, however, did not experience any increase in the larceny rate whatsoever. 

Petty crime rates did not increase in these second thirty-four cities until four years later, in 1955, just after televisions were finally legalized there. The study authors attributed the increased crime to individuals’ enhanced feelings of deprivation relative to the economically better positioned others they observed on the silver screen. 

Everyone Glistens on Screen 

Imagine you are living in a small town in Oklahoma where most of the people around you are similar to you in terms of what they own. All of a sudden, you have a screen in your living room on which you observe that some people, in fact, have much more than you do.  

You may experience an envy unlike anything you have ever felt before, and faster than you can say “I want it,” you begin stealing from others so you can have what they have. 

Social media has taken this rudimentary human drive detected by Festinger—the need to compare oneself favorably with similar others in order to feel worthy—and placed it on steroids.  

As with other Internet-accelerated addictions, we can while away our days looking through the social media profiles of others like us and then assess how they are faring in their lives with very little apparent social or material costs. If we are faring better, we preserve our fragile sense of self. If they are doing better, our self-esteem plummets. 

Nothing Real to See Here 

Thanks to Facebook, Instagram and other social media sites, we are now playing in a house of mirrors that renders the whole social comparison process meaningless. Social media users now routinely inflate images of their lives while hiding the flab and unhappiness. 

Hell bent on optimizing self-presentation, they sift through hundreds of photos from a recent family vacation to find the one moment of the entire week in which everyone was smiling. In fact, some young women even go so far now as to post selfies doctored with shrinking software to curry favor in the social comparison game.