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The Influence of Social Media on Self-Perception Features

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The relationship between social media and self-perception has increasingly gained popularity as social media becomes more intertwined in the daily lives of Americans. Multiple studies have analyzed the relationships and the effects social media has in the developing of an individual’s self-perception before reaching maturity. In general, social media classified as having both negative and positive influences on the user’s self-perception. Nonetheless, social media becomes more prevalent in the development of the user’s self-perception due to increased media exposure to younger kids, especially as they begin using social media. Social psychology defines the self-perception theory as the process in which individuals, lacking initial attitudes or emotional responses, develop through observing their own behaviors and concluding as to what attitudes must have fostered that behavior.

Whereas self-enhancement theory is when an individual’s self-perception biases tend to lead them to perceive themselves as above average (Loughnan et al., 2011, pp. 1254). Several studies have focused on the self-perceptions of males versus females as well as the differences across cultures. The current study will focus on the relationship between social media and self-perception in cultures with more income inequalities (e.g. the United States).

The self-perception theory was originally developed between the late 1960s and early 1970s by psychologist Daryl Bem. According to the self-perception theory, individuals interpret their own actions in the same sense that they interpret the actions of others, further stating that the individual’s actions are often socially influenced and not produced out of their own free will (Aronson et al., 2015, chapter 4). Several studies have been conducted to prove the self-perception theory. The present study will further explore the impacts social media specifically has on young, women in the United States. Social media has increasingly become more prevalent in the development of younger individuals, however, to what extent does the increasing presence of social media play in their development of self-perception.

According to social comparisons, individuals attempt to demonstrate their power and status in order to boost their self-confidence and self-perception. In societies with unequal social status, individuals are strongly motivated to stand out as superior to others (Loughnan et al., 2011, pp. 1255). In societies with more economic equality, the benefits of superiority over others diminish as there is a stronger emphasis towards collectivism rather than individualism (Loughnan et al., 2011, pp. 1255). A study argued that Westerners are more likely to be individualists who pursue personal success and uniqueness (Loughnan et al., 2011, pp. 1254). In an economically unequal society, competition drives individuals to dominate others, therefore, are more prone to have an increased tendency to demonstrate self-enhancement behaviors thus leading to an increased level of individualism as a society (Loughnan et al., 2011, pp. 1255).

The competitiveness triggered by economic inequality may foster biased self-perception. Additionally, individualism and economic inequality combined may manifest to foster a perception of competition that results in cultural differences in levels of self-enhancement (Loughnan et al., 2011, pp. 1257). Individualism and economic inequality together may undermine the norm of modesty (Loughnan et al., 2011, pp. 1257). Loughnan et al. illustrate the importance of modesty norms and its ability in reducing self-enhancement; when modesty norms are compromised, self-enhancement increases (Loughnan et al., 2011, pp. 1257). Social media attempts to replicate this model further by portraying images and ideas that “fit” the cultural norms. The media emphasizes that “the cultural meanings are not fixed in products, but vary according to cultural, historical, and social group context” (Milkie, 2018, pp. 191).

The central position of media in daily use ensures that the symbols distributed through the media will become points of focus and interaction in the population (Milkie, 2018, pp. 191). For media to be effective, it must obey the societal beliefs and norms of each culture and generation. Research states that individuals are critical towards the media’s representation of reality, predominantly the portrayal of their own reference groups (Milkie, 2018, pp. 192). Individuals have an image of their ideal self and when social media portrays individuals to behavior and appear different than their belief, the individual believes that the perceived image of their selves is wrong. Inaccurate images may affect the individuals through social annihilation; the individuals feel as they must alter themselves to fit the “true” social definition of the group (Milkie, 2018, pp. 192).

Teenagers are especially susceptible to social annihilation as they attempt to “find themselves” and fit in the narrow boxes that their perceived world portrays as the norm. As teenagers develop their self-perception, they must contemplate what their aims or traits are as they analyze if it is appropriate (Choi, 2009, pp. 8). Teenagers look to their peers, role models, and the images on social media to compare their selves to those standards. Since teenagers are still developing, they do not believe that they are susceptible to media influences or peer pressure – they have a belief that “it won’t happen to me or I would never do x”. Teenagers consider themselves as indestructible beings and commonly engage in the “third-person effect”. The “third-person effect” strongly influences the individuals’ response towards the media as they believe that “others are more strongly affected by media portrayals than they themselves are” (Milkie, 2018, pp. 192). The third-person effect suggests that the effects of media have an indirect effect on people due to their own perceptions of the way others see the media-distorted world (Milkie, 2018, pp. 193). Indirectly, individuals may be affected by media images only when they believe that those important to them are so affected (Milkie, 2018, pp. 193).

Teenagers are notoriously self-conscious as they are trying to find themselves and how they fit into the world. Psychologists have used the “looking-glass self” to explain why teenagers have certain reactions towards the opinions of others. The looking-glass self explains the development of one’s self and of one’s identity through their interpersonal interactions with others and society; individuals develop their sense of self by reflecting on how others perceive us (Choi, 2009, pp. 8). Individuals have this idea of what they believe others think of them and that this belief is accurate, they expect others to view themselves in this manner (Sedikides & Gregg, 2008, pp. 102). Typically, individuals view themselves in a positive manner; they are biased and do not see the wrong in themselves as they would in others (Sedikides & Gregg, 2008, pp. 102). However, young women continuously struggle with their development of their self-enhancement and self-perception as they struggle to “fit” in and overcome the media’s idea of how a woman should look and act.

Sedikides and Greggs propose that self-enhancement manifests itself at four levels: as an observed effect, an ongoing process, a personality trait, and an underlying motive (2008, pp. 103). Individuals have a natural drive to evaluate their own attributes and abilities, they measure their selves by comparing themselves with the individuals around them (Smeesters & Mandel, 2006, pp. 576). In particular, young women have a tendency to compare themselves to the women that are advertised on the media – as mentioned, this reaction occurs spontaneously and automatically (Smeesters & Mandel, 2006, pp. 581). Nowadays, perception is everywhere as everyone has an idea of their ideal self and with the consistent presence of the media further fosters this belief. The media often advertise images of beautiful, inspirational women, and to young women, they see these images as yardsticks of who they should be.

Numerous studies have been conducted to evaluate the emotional impact social media has on individuals; however, because individuals conceive, and express happiness differently, how can it be evaluated? “A single user may have different experiences of social media day to day or even minute by minute” (Miller et al., 2016, pp. 195). Personal social media use allows individuals to use the “Goldilocks Strategy”. This strategy allowed individuals to remain connected with individuals who fell between close friends and distant acquaintances on social media by presenting the appearance of being in touch with everyone without having to spend significant time and energy meeting them in person (Milkie, 1999, pp. 200).

Consistent in the studies, social media does play a significant role in an individual’s self-perception whether it is intentional or subconsciously. Each individual has a perception of who and what their ideal self is. Cultures with increased income inequalities, such as the United States, foster competitive behaviors, therefore, encourage the individual’s self-enhancement and self-perception. Furthermore, in many Western cultures, individuals have an independent view of the self. Psychologists use the concept “independent view of the self” as a way of defining oneself in terms of their own internal thoughts, feelings, and actions without the influences of the others.

Researchers have often used social media to understand the self-perception in individuals as individuals have daily exposure to media – television, advertisement, and social media. A study conducted in industrial China illustrated the added pressure social media has especially among the middle-class local residents by knowing each other’s daily life can increase individuals to compare their lives to the others around them, making them feel inferior (Milkie, 1999, pp. 202). Social media may contribute added stress about how individuals present themselves to others.

The research done on the relationship between social media and self-perception does appear to be valid and reliable. The majority of the studies conducted resulted in similar findings stating social media does have some level of influence on an individual’s self-perception. The research conducted does relate to the theories mentioned throughout the Social Psychology 460 course.

As previously mentioned, the self-perception theory states who an individual is based on their actions and behaviors. According to self-perception theory, individuals interpret their own actions the way they interpret the actions of others, and the individual’s actions tend to be socially influenced (Aronson et al., 2015, chapter 5). Social media plays a significant role in the self-perception theory as Miller et al. illustrate in his study concerning the social impacts influenced through the use of social media. The authors illustrate how individuals use social media to reflect social mobility to reflect the material form individuals’ desires of their future and who they strive to become (Miller et al., 2016, pp. 198). The article demonstrates how social media encourages competition to demonstrate their superiority above others.

The self-awareness theory is applicable in these studies as the theory allows an individual to reflect on their thoughts and behaviors. The self-awareness theory explains an individual’s ability to engage in reflective awareness (Aronson et al., 2015, chapter 5). This theory is relevant to Miller et al.’s study concerning the negative social and internal factors social media may contribute to an individual. The researchers elaborated a study concerning the added stress individuals may have with the increased presence of social media stating it lies at the core of local social values consequently individuals feel more pressure. Particularly women are inclined to encounter these pressures to craft their self-presentation carefully when in public, uploading a photograph, or even updating their status (Milkie, 1999, pp. 203). These individuals must consciously decide if they are going to allow the societal influences and media influence dictate who they will become and how they will behave.

The third application relevant to the study is social comparison theory. The social comparison theory states an individual determines their own social and personal worth based on how they compare against others, therefore the individual perceives their worth as somehow better or worse (Aronson et al., 2015, chapter 5). To relate this concept to the study, Milkie mentions a unique quality the media has on the public: (1) the audience is sensitive and critical towards the media reflection of reality, especially towards the portrayal of their own reference groups; and (2) the audience may be critical towards the sense of opposing media images ideologically (1999, pp. 192). She continues to elaborate on how social comparisons affect how individuals learn about and view their selves in relation to individuals, groups, or social categories. Social comparison theory suggests that individuals tend to compare their selves to whomever; therefore, have relative freedom to select the referents by whom to evaluate against their self (Milkie, 1999, pp. 193). Theoretically, given the freedom of comparison, individuals could use selectivity to escape media images that they dislike or compare negatively and choose not to compare their selves to these images (Milkie, 1999, pp. 193).

In societies with income inequality, the individuals tend to view themselves as superior to others (self-enhancement), whereas individuals from societies with less income inequality demonstrate a relatively weak bias (Loughnan et al., 2011, pp. 1256). The connection between social media and self-perception has increasingly been researched as social media becomes more prevalent in cultures with increased income inequalities, such as the United States. The research conducted is valid and resourceful, however, continued studies should be conducted as the media adapt to various cultural norms as well as shifting perceptions of the societal attitudes.

Numerous studies have researched the effects social media has on an individual’s self-perception. Various factors contribute to the increase of an individual’s self-enhancement. Some studies have indicated the competitiveness is triggered by economic inequality and individualism combined may manifest increased levels of self-enhancement (Loughnan et al., 2011, pp. 1257). Other studies have illustrated the opposite point stating the increased presence of social media is correlated to additional stress for the users to maintain their appearance in real life and online (Milkie, 1999, pp. 202). Regardless, the studies have concluded the presence of social media does play a significant role in developing an individual’s self-perception whether it is subconsciously or through direct exposure. Continued research should be conducted to further evaluate the effects social media plays on the younger generations.

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