Envy: NTU's Dr Daria Kuss Explains How Social Media Can Cause Jealousy Between Friends and Problems in Relationships

Interview: George White
Illustrations: Fiona Carr
Tuesday 16 November 2021
reading time: min, words

Social media has been proven to increase feelings of envy and resentment towards friends, family, colleagues, and even romantic partners. We hear from Dr Daria Kuss, Associate Professor in Nottingham Trent University’s Psychology Department, about how platforms like Instagram can trigger jealousy and bitterness, why cyber stalking is creating problems within relationships, and how we can look after our mental health when online…


What is social media envy?
At the core of social media envy are upward social comparisons, where you compare yourself to people who are seemingly better-off for whatever reason. These are often celebrities and people with a lot of money who might have nice houses and cars, and we often cannot compare our own lives to theirs. Our research at Nottingham Trent has specifically shown that social media platforms, especially Instagram - more so than Facebook, Twitter, TikTok - can also be associated with increased stress, anxiety, depression and even addiction. I think that’s probably not surprising given the kinds of messages and pictures that people are being exposed to on there. 

Is this an issue that can be affected by those within your immediate network too, like friends, family and colleagues? 
Absolutely. Comparisons with our peers is our first port of call - and that has been the case even before social media. We have always looked at what our friends and family are doing, but now that has expanded. What we are seeing are those moments in people’s lives that are particularly special - like getting new jobs or going on holiday. We are not going to post things that are particularly negative about our lives, like a selfie at 7am on a Sunday morning after a long night out. We really have to bear in mind what it is we’re being presented with online - this is just a tiny glimpse of reality. 

What about romantic jealousy - has social media created greater tensions within relationships? 
We can definitely see cases of romantic cyber jealousy, often in the form of cyber stalking partners to check who they’ve been hanging out with, whether they’re still friends with their exes and so on. When you have a look at the divorce rates in the United States, for example, we know that in around twenty percent of cases some social media-related instances were mentioned as a reason for people separating from their partners. This really goes to show how important social media has become for our everyday social interactions and our romantic relationships.

Are younger generations more vulnerable? 
Younger people do spend more time on social media, they have more social media accounts, and they engage more with their peers online. As a consequence, social media envy may well have a greater impact on them because they are more avid users. They are also more impacted by the fear of missing out, which encourages increased use - leading to other unhealthy behaviors like using mobile phones at night.

We can definitely see cases of romantic cyber jealousy, often in the form of cyber stalking partners to check who they’ve been hanging out with, or whether they’re still friends with their exes

Do individuals deliberately try to trigger envy from their peers? 
Seeking validation from the people around us has always been one of the most natural human behaviours. So when we’re posting updates on our career, on our physical appearance and so on, it is more for the reason of seeking validation. We all want to be assured within our environments and to be awarded for our achievements by receiving appreciation from our social circles. I’m sure some individuals will want to create jealousy and envy, but validation is the main reason why we will post positive updates on our platforms. 

Are social media platforms doing enough to tackle issues with envy? 
We have to question the algorithms being used by platforms that dictate the types of post we’re being shown. Just because we’ve looked at something on social media once doesn’t mean we necessarily want to be bombarded with that sort of information in the future. And things like the Cambridge Analytica scandal show that these algorithms can be very detrimental to our mental health. Just recently we’ve had stories about the whistleblower who’s been talking about how Facebook prioritises profits over people’s mental wellbeing. This is problematic because it shows that, unfortunately, these companies are caring more for profits than how they can protect their users. I am aware that the likes of Facebook and Google are working to develop wellness and wellbeing-enhancing measures, but I think it’s extremely limited.

Are social media platforms all bad? Are there any benefits to being online? 
Our research does suggest that it’s not all horrible when it comes to social media use. This was especially shown during the pandemic. People were so blessed to be able to connect with others when face-to-face interactions were impossible. We know that social media also offers opportunities for people who are in marginalised groups to talk to people who understand them. So even though there may be issues with excessive social media for some individuals, at the same time we have to bear in mind that social media has positive impacts on a huge number of people as well. 

How can we manage our social media envy? 
It’s all about being mindful of our reactions and our responses, thinking about what it is that causes us to feel envious. Once we understand those kinds of relationships we can try to change the situation. We can unfollow people, unfollow groups, switch off post notifications. We can also start following people and groups that are more mental health-oriented, rather than celebrities or particular people who we know might post things that upset us. It’s really about focusing on what are our triggers and how we can counteract them. 

Dr Daria Kuss is the co-author of Internet Addiction - Advances In Psychotherapy, which is available to purchase online. 


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