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Jealous of your Facebook friends? You’re not alone.

A new Experience survey reveals how much online envy is hurting our psyches — and fraying our real-life relationships

By Alexandra Samuel

The last time I felt envious on social media was when I saw one of my best friend’s posts about her weight loss transformation…I was happy for her, but also jealous because I want to be happy with my body in the same way she was.

The thing that made me envious was my friend who bought a car. He kept taking pictures of it and putting it on Instagram. It was getting out of hand for me so I commented “dude stop” and he blocked me shortly after, as if I did something wrong.

The post was a gender reveal video from my husband’s cousin…I was so envious because I have lost three unborn babies. Even if I were to get pregnant again, I would never have the carefree attitude that the couple in the video has.

If you’ve ever had these kinds of feelings while browsing Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, you’re not alone. Social media envy shadows our online lives. It’s so pervasive that there is now a thriving academic literature on the connection between social media usage, envy, and depression.

If social media envy is a widespread experience, however, it’s still an isolating one. We nurse our hurts and grudges in private. But we won’t conquer social media envy until we can publicly acknowledge all the ways it affects us.

That’s why we put the phenomenon under the microscope. In a survey conducted online last summer, we asked more than a thousand Americans to tell us about their feelings as they scroll through social feeds, and to describe the posts that inspired their latest envy pangs.

Our survey, deployed via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, was completed on July 24, 2018. Though our respondents don’t perfectly match the demographics of U.S. internet users, the results still underscore the breadth and depth of the online envy phenomenon. Two thirds of our respondents reported experiencing pangs of social media envy in the previous month. Nearly a quarter said that during that month, they had felt social media envy three or more times.

In the past month, how often have you felt envious (whether it’s just a little or really jealous) because of something you saw on social media?
Three times or more
Once or twice
Never
Not sure/can’t recall
24.02%
43.95%
20.41%
11.62%

Even more telling, many shared achingly personal stories about grief, self-doubt, and frayed relationships. These comments suggest that social media has unleashed a deep, pervasive, negative emotional force — something that threatens to tear apart our most precious relationships, as well as the day-to-day social fabric of casual friendship.

The last thing to make me feel envious on a social network was Instagram pictures of a trip that a friend took to a luxury resort. It even led me to reconsider whether or not to stay friends with them because I feel like I can’t really relate to their lifestyle and hobbies.

I had a friend who recently posted from Miami, and I have to say I was a bit jealous. I am sitting in NW Pennsylvania with 23 inches of snow outside and she is living it up with a pineapple drink on the beach in the sun.

The post was about somebody’s “hardest day ever” because her big fancy expensive house that had just gone on the market the previous week and only had 2 offers and her kid was rude to the au pair. Meanwhile we’re struggling to just survive and this kind of person/poster is so ignorant of how lucky they are.

I saw a picture of the sister of a friend of mine on Instagram. She was on a yacht in Capri, Italy. She was surrounded with friends all laughing and having a great time. It made me want to go to Capri, even if I didn’t have all those gorgeous friends with me. It made me want to take that picture on a yacht with a glass of fresh wine.

I saw a post of a former co-worker who had gotten a very, very expensive car. Even though I understand that many online posts are done for attention or prideful reasons, I still couldn’t help but feel envious. I was happy for him, but I also a bit embarrassed that he would want such attention.

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But there may still be a way out. Amidst the growing interest in digital well-being, we see more experts — and more individuals — charting best practices to avoid or mitigate the experience of social media envy. I’ve spent the past 15 years advising individuals and organizations on how to work with social media, yet only recently have these conversations turned to what people and platforms can do to stem the tide of envy. Before we can conquer social media envy, however, we need to understand it.

Thanks to Instagram, Facebook, and mobile phones, we’re never more than a click away from the evidence that somebody else is living a fantastic life, far better than our own messy existence. Social media gives us constant, immediate access to everything we’re not doing, and leads us to question both our lives and our friends.

I love to travel and I just saw 8 of my high school classmates going to Singapore for a trip to celebrate turning “40.” I really wished I was there with them on a girl’s trip. I have been tied home with a son who has a disability and had to give up a number of things, travel being one of them.

It was a post from a wife to her husband expressing anniversary wishes. My husband passed away about 8 months ago and we just had our 30th anniversary. I was so wishing that was me telling my husband.

Two friends of mine who have significant others posted a picture of them out to eat at a new restaurant near us with their partners. I was envious because I’m single at the moment and feel like I miss out on a lot of social things because I don’t have a boyfriend. I was at home doing nothing and they didn’t invite me.

An old friend who I have lost touch with posted pictures from a recent all girls trip…I was envious of the strong bond her and other friends have. I wanted to be part of that group. I wanted to be there with them. I wanted the long-lasting friendship that had girls nights and vacations…I want that bond.

I felt jealous that my friends with kids, have their lives together. Their kids look happy, their homes are always meticulous, they are dressed in amazing clothes, and so are their kids. My kid is usually dressed really cute but I look a hot mess and I only have one little one. I wonder if people get outside help because here there is no help.

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If social media envy is now commonplace, however, that doesn’t mean it’s evenly distributed. Jan Crusius is a psychology professor at the University of Cologne, Germany and an expert on social comparison — a field that has turned its attention to social media envy in countries around the world. “Not every kind of person is equally vulnerable,” Crusius says, “In our own research, we found that people who scored higher on depression were more vulnerable to react with envy to attractive Facebook profiles.”

Some kinds of updates seem particularly likely to trigger envy pangs. In our survey, vacation and travel photos were the number one cause of social media envy, followed closely by posts that showcased money, wealth, or lifestyle.

Thinking about the last time you saw something on a social network that made you envious, what was the post about?
Travel or vacation
33.88%
Lifestyle
32.08%
Money or wealth
28.34%
Family or children
19.54%
Party, event, or social activity
15.80%
Appearance, fashion, hair, or beauty
12.87%
Love, sex, marriage, or romance
12.54%
Friendship
12.21%
Job, promotion
10.75%
Weight or fitness
7.82%
Major purchase
8.63%
House, home
7.82%
Creative accomplishments
4.40%
Purchases (not major)
3.91%
Encounters with famous or cool people
3.42%
Pets or animals
2.61%

Still, not all envy is created equal. Crusius contrasts malicious envy — “the hostile kind of envy, in which you don’t want another person to have the better fortune” — with the “benign envy” of “Damn it, I want this too!”  

Social media posts tend to trigger the benign form, says Sonja Utz, a professor of communication at the University of Tübingen, Germany and a leading expert on social media envy. “Relationship strength also matters,” she says. “The closer we are to the person who shares positive moments of their life, the more happiness and benign envy we experience.”

Our survey bears out this pattern. Respondents reported that the people who triggered the most envy, in many cases, weren’t their dearest friends. On the contrary: the lion’s share of envy-generating updates came from casual friends. That phenomenon was particularly strong among women, who were twice as likely to be triggered by casual friends than by close friends.

Who posted the last social media update that left you feeling envious?
Casual friend
35.78%
Close friend
24.43%
Influencer
10.34%
Family
9.34%
Colleague
8.62%
Celebrity
6.61%
An ex
0.57%
People who have experienced social media envy in the past month by gender and frequency of envy
Three times or more
Once or twice
Women
24.08%
41.95%
Men
18.04%
41.18%

Precisely because it’s now so easy to stay in touch with everyone we’ve ever known, social media increases the surface area of our vulnerability, extending the range of people we can envy and the ways in which we can envy them. When it isn’t homing in on our deepest, most painful hurts, social media envy can inflict a thousand shallow cuts.

A former co-worker of mine just got a very good job with the city and was bragging about it on Facebook. I was very happy for him, but also extremely envious, because I am at the same job he was at, but he had the guts to go out and land that job. Oh, and he’s making $7 more an hour than I am now, sheesh!

My best friend recently bought a house, while I (because of financial troubles) have had to move back home with my mom and dad. I was jealous of his back deck, his fireplace, his giant TV above the mantle, the guest room, the other guest room, the office for him, the office for her, the list goes on and on.

I am part of a group that focuses on a specific way of eating (keto). Quite often, group members post pictures showing their weight loss. There was one woman who is my age and had close to the same starting weight. She has lost a considerable amount of weight and looks spectacular. I felt envious.

This post was from a direct sales person I follow. She is known to have bullied some former co-workers. She went live to show us her new vacation home and said she was on her way to buy a new boat…It seems some people who are intentionally bad towards others still have a way of getting ahead.

A friend had posted about their trip to a luxury resort that I could not afford if I saved up for the next five years of my life. They humblebragged about how hard it was to take time off work to go. I have a terrible, menial, low-paying job and they basically lucked into a high-paying, cakewalk job where they get to hobnob with celebrities once a week.

I know it’s bad, but my best friend posted how she well she is doing…I realize I should have been happy for her but I couldn’t help but feel left out and jealous. I wished I could get that kind of attention and display that level of talent. I didn’t tell her this of course and still liked her Insta post, but still the envy festers inside of me.

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That emotional punch can have a real impact on our offline relationships, affecting our feelings for those who would otherwise be near and dear: Nearly 1 in 10 of our respondents reported that seeing an envy-triggering post from a friend or family member actually made them like that person less (though nearly as many reported that an envy-triggering post made them like that person more — proof that some relationships are strong enough to withstand a little online envy.)

Fighting the green-eyed monster

If envy is now a routine part of our online lives, that doesn’t mean we’re powerless against it. The majority of our survey respondents who experienced social media envy also reported taking specific steps to mitigate it.

The most common strategy is to simply go offline. Some also use unfriending or unfollowing as a tool to manage envy, or turn to meditation or self-reflection to get out of the envy spiral. Yet many people in our survey — a third of those who reported experiencing envy in the past month — did nothing to address the problem, and seemed instead to treat social media envy as part of the price of life online.

Have you used any of the following strategies to cope with social media envy?
Go offline
40.34%
Unfollow/unfriend someone
23.09%
Meditation/reflection
18.43%
Quit a network
12.29%
Share something myself
10.51%
None of these
34.99%

But we don’t have to resign ourselves to the inevitability of social media envy. It’s up to all of us to mitigate its impact — not just for our own individual sanity, but to ensure that our relationships and communities aren’t undermined by the virtual green-eyed monster. And there are steps we can take to handle our feelings, even as we stay online.

For instance, research suggests that we’re only immobilized or depressed by social media envy when we passively browse sites like Facebook and Instagram, acting like virtual voyeurs in other people’s lives. When we engage with social media actively ourselves — by posting, sharing, commenting, reacting — that depressive effect disappears. We can learn how to revel in our own lives by helping other people celebrate theirs.

That recommendation lines up with my own experience as a compulsive social media user and professional social media trainer and consultant. I suspect one of the reasons I’m only intermittently tortured by social media envy is that my digital habits — I rarely look at my newsfeeds, and spend most of my time reviewing comments people have left on my own posts — insulate me from its worst effects. (On the dangers of social media narcissism, I have no comment.)

We can also rethink what we share. No, it’s not your job to protect friends who might feel envious of your new car or job or hot tub — but do you really want to be the person who regularly makes other people feel bad about their lives? Recognizing the ubiquity of social media envy should encourage us to take some responsibility for the image we project online, which means having some empathy for how our updates affect other people. 

[M]y co-worker had posted several photographs of himself and his family while on vacation. I was jealous that he was on vacation and having such a good time while I was stuck at work. I wished that my family was as happy as his appeared to be. I felt really silly afterwards because I know that his life is not “better” than mine, only different.

A friend kept posting about all of these places she always goes. It is more like a fairy tale reading these posts because it just doesn’t seem that any normal working-class person could take these many trips and do as many things. Sometimes she is not even in the pictures that she posts so I wonder if they are all even true.

The post was about a family who travels a lot, and they were going to a tropical island yet again for all to see. I would love for my family to be able to afford a vacation this summer. We have to be really conservative with our money and therefore cannot even think about going somewhere like a tropical island. I am thinking about closing my Facebook account because of this.

There was a post on Facebook of someone showing off vacation pics with their children, and husband. It made me feel bad as I realized I will likely never have a family due to my being divorced, and in a tremendous amount of medical bill debt. It is one of the reasons I stopped visiting Facebook daily. It makes me cognizant of the fact that I don’t have very many good things to share about my life.

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You don’t need to refrain from sharing your good news, and you don’t need to whine or complain about every setback. You just need to scrutinize the cumulative impact of your profile to assess whether it reflects a generally accurate picture of your life. If you feel like you’re airbrushing your life story, consider injecting some vulnerability into your posts, or setting a quota on how often you allow yourself a brag. (My personal practice is to cap myself at one unrepentant brag per month.)

You might also limit the audience for your envy-inducing posts by thinking carefully about who sees each of your updates. “To avoid inducing envy in others, people should also post mainly to their closer friends,” Utz advises. (You can do this easily on Facebook by using lists to target different kinds of updates to different people.)  “Hashtags can also influence appraisals about deservedness,” Utz says. “#richkid triggers more envy than #workedhard #adreamcametrue.”

Next, consider the psychological impact social media has on your mood and self-esteem. If you have friends who consistently depress you with their fabulous (or suspiciously fabulous) lives, consider unfollowing or unfriending them. I’m absolutely ruthless about hiding people from my Facebook feed if I see more than the occasional post about their dazzling life and accomplishments — and even my most beloved friends may get hidden from my feed for the month of their trek through Thailand. (Yes, I’m happy for them, but I can be happy without dwelling on their joy each and every day of their vacation.)

Once you’ve taken the technical steps to stem the tide of incoming envy, you can start thinking about how to become the kind of noble human being who rises above the lust for someone else’s beach house or beach body. After all, each of us only has so much emotional stamina, so if you use yours up trying not to envy your elementary school classmate for her new Porsche, you may be out of generosity when it comes time to celebrate your current best friend’s latest promotion. 

This ultimately comes down to changing the internal narrative that plays whenever we see someone else getting that new house or new job: the voice that says you are a failure, or at least an also-ran, when you’re not experiencing the same joys or acquiring the same possessions as your friends.

I have a friend whom I have known since high school. She and her German husband and their daughter travel all over Europe, lived in Costa Rica, and embrace the “expatriate” life. I often wish I could see all the places that she goes to. Luckily, I can live vicariously through her Instagram stories and Facebook posts and, if I imagine hard enough, I can see myself having been a world traveler, too.

My friend who is a professional guitarist shared pictures of the equipment he had set up in his home…I know he worked really hard to earn all that but it’s my dream to live on my own and have a house to play music in. I asked him if I could save the pictures as a reminder to keep following my goals.

I myself am an artist, so when I see really fantastic art posts, I do feel a bit envious. But instead of letting it put me down, I let it inspire me to work harder.…Seeing the post made me feel like I wish I was better, and that I need to work harder in order to accomplish what I want.

[A college classmate] posted about having a great paying job (that they enjoy), a house they just bought, and have already paid off their student loans. While I graduated just a year after them, I have none of these things. It really made me question whether I was being successful and what the very definition of success is.

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If you still find yourself bedeviled by envy when you’re surfing the latest Facebook or Instagram updates, remember that envy can be useful — at least when it comes to benign envy, which doesn’t involve hostility. In giving us a new (if often painful) perspective on others, social media envy can bring us back to ourselves. What we see online can and does inspire us to ask questions about our own choices and priorities, like the survey respondent who told us that, while other artist’s successes sometimes inspire envy, “I let it inspire me to work harder.”

“Envy can be quite functional in motivating us,” Crusius says. “Benign envy motivates us to invest more effort, potentially leading to better outcomes.”  Indeed, learning to convert social media envy into fuel — so that it inspires rather than saps us — may be an essential skill for thriving in a digital world.

ABOUT OUR SAMPLE

Our survey was conducted on July 24, 2018, and deployed on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform. Virtually all of our 1,075 respondents use at least one major social network, and 98 percent use one or more networks at least once a week. Our sample skews slightly female (52 percent female, 48 percent male) and also skews young: 75 percent of respondents were under 40 (compared with 38 percent in the U.S. population) and only 12.6 percent were over 50 (compared to 44 percent in the general population).

As with the general population, about half our sample has a household income of 50k or less. But our sample significantly under-represents the most affluent: While a quarter of the U.S. population lives in households with incomes over 100k, only 12 percent of our sample does. Our analysis suggests that income has only a very modest impact on social media envy. However, people with household incomes over $100k reported social media envy at identical rates to those with incomes of $50-100k, and those with household incomes under $50k differed only in being slightly more likely to experience social media envy frequently (25 percent of those with household incomes under $50k reported experiencing social media envy 3 or more times in the previous month, vs. 21 percent of those with household incomes of 50-100k and 20 percent of those with incomes over $100k).

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Alexandra Samuel is a data journalist and technology consultant

 

Illustration by Grégoire Gicquel

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