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Self esteem and social media – An important lesson

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Social media is all pervasive, omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient.  Would you believe me if I told you, a group of scientists have used “likes” to explain what makes one’s self-esteem go up and down.

A number of factors contribute to one’s self-esteem ranging from academic success to the size of one’s tummy.  Despite the infinite number of variables contributing to “self-esteem”, one factor remains fairly common among most of us. How we look in the eyes of others, our how we think we are perceived or judged by others is a major contributor to self-esteem.

“Even the most accomplished PhD scholar may feel terribly insecure around people he feels may have no respect for him or what he does”

Low self-esteem makes people vulnerable to a number of psychiatric problems and mental health issues including eating disorders, anxiety disorders, personality disorders and depression. This link between “likes” and self-esteem thus has enormous potential in the field of mental health.

The effect on likes and dislikes on the human brain.

40 healthy participants underwent a task wherein they were socially evaluated (via likes or dislikes)  while in an MRI machine. Their profiles were uploaded to a database and they were given feedback by 184 strangers (the strangers were actually a computer program) via thumbs-up (like) or thumbs-down (dislike).

These ‘strangers’ were split into two separate groups.Participants learned to expect positive feedback from some raters, and negative feedback from other groups.  Participant self-esteem was self-reported after 2-3 trials. Participants expected to be liked by ‘strangers’ in the positive feedback groups, so when they received a thumbs-down from a person in that group,  their self-esteem slipped downward.This error in social prediction was key in determining self-esteem. These errors were seen in the brain as activity in parts important for learning and valuation. The researchers also discovered that those people who had greater fluctuations in self-esteem during the task also were more likely to report depression and anxiety.

Implications for you and me!

This study, however, was not done with “social media” in mind. It is quite easy to see how the principles can be transferred over.  An unfulfilled expectation to be liked contributed significantly to a decreased self-esteem. This cognitive pitfall can contribute to mental illnesses. Cognitive pitfalls, negative automatic thoughts and maladaptive beliefs about self-have been studied over and over again in diagnostic and therapeutic trials.

Self-esteem that derives from intrinsic factors ( a sense of self, contentment, calmness, and drive) would inherently hold advantages over extrinsic factors such as (likes, money, social status etc.)

To conclude.

Base your confidence on who you are and not on of what others think of you!



  1. Geert-Jan Will, Robb B Rutledge, Michael Moutoussis, Raymond J Dolan. Neural and computational processes underlying dynamic changes in self-esteemeLife, 2017 DOI: 10.7554/eLife.28098.001

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