Social Media, Materialism Threaten Mental Health

by Denis Storey
February 6, 2024 at 9:56 AM UTC

Researchers link materialism to lower life satisfaction, with social media acting as a trigger for this discontent.

Clinical relevance: Researchers link materialism to lower life satisfaction, with social media acting as a trigger for this discontent.

  • A study found a negative link between materialistic values and life satisfaction, with social media playing a significant role.
  • The study identified three core attributes of materialism: Acquisition Centrality, Acquisition as the Pursuit of Happiness, and Possession-defined Success.
  • Social media contributes to a self-defeating downward spiral by fostering materialism, encouraging social comparisons, promoting passive use, and ultimately impacting life satisfaction negatively.

Few things are as American as spending. Back in 1985, Madonna’s rise to fame continued with the release of “Material Girl,” an empowerment anthem built on the accumulation of – for lack of a better word – stuff.

Later that same decade, Wall Street’s Gordon Gecko summed up the decade best when he exhorted, “The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed is — for lack of a better word — is good. Greed is right. Greed works.”

The second Bush Administration seemed to cement that belief in the American psyche in 2001 when, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, officials encouraged citizens to fight the good fight by spending to prevent the economy from collapsing. Suddenly, spending transformed into a patriotic duty.

Materialism Rampant on Social Media

So, imagine the potential impact of a new study that suggests materialism and social media might not be the best combination.

Materialism, as the authors point out in the January issue of Telematics and Informatics Reports, exists as “a positive attitude towards possessions and material things as well as the desire to constantly increase them, is a psychological trait that has become more and more common since industrialization and is constantly increasing.”

Social media gives a virtual soapbox to that crusade while enabling its evangelists. Users receive targeted ads that speak directly to their interests, making it easier than ever for consumers to satisfy their cravings. And with nearly 5 billion users spread across the various platforms, there’s never been a larger audience, which can provide immediate gratification with the click of a like button.

“Although there is already some evidence with respect to the relationships between materialism, social comparisons, social media use, social media addiction, stress, and life satisfaction, no study has yet tested the interaction of all these variables in a single path model,” the authors wrote. “Therefore, our general aim was to examine the extent to which materialism is associated with lower satisfaction with life as a marker of subjective well-being integrating social comparison orientation, social media use, and social media addiction…To test this, we conducted an online survey with the goal of examining this relationship within a serial mediation model.”

Tracking Materialism on Social Media

The study’s authors began by describing materialism by its three core attributes:

  1. Acquisition Centrality, i.e., possessions and the accumulation and increase of possessions are the central goal of people with high materialistic attitudes.
  2. Acquisition as the Pursuit of Happiness, i.e., the belief that possessions and their acquisition lead to more happiness and satisfaction in life.
  3. Possession-defined Success, i.e., people with high materialistic attitudes judge success by the quantity and quality of goods they possess.

With these, along with other characteristics, the researchers devised what they called a Material Value Scale.

The researchers, led by Dr. Phillip Ozimek from the Faculty of Psychology at Ruhr University Bochum, Germany, worked with 1,230 participants – all of whom used at least one social media channel weekly. On average, the participants said that they spent just over two hours a day on various platforms.

The researchers walked the respondents through a half dozen different surveys to:

  • Determine the extent to which participants possessed a materialistic mindset.
  • How much they compared themselves with others online.
  • Whether they were active or passive users.
  • Whether they were addicted to social media.
  • How stressed and/or satisfied they were with their lives. 

Shocking – If Not Surprising – Findings

The researchers uncovered “a negative link between materialistic values and satisfaction with life but also for the significance of social comparison orientation, social media use, social media addiction, and perceived stress symptoms as mediators in a series of distinct stages.”

In short, social media tends to kick off – and feed – a self-defeating downward spiral.

“The data showed that a stronger materialistic approach goes hand in hand with a tendency to compare oneself with others,” lead author and Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany, faculty member Phillip Ozimek, PhD, explained.

The study also showed a clear link between materialism and passive social media use.

“By this, we mean, for example, that users are constantly thinking about the respective channels and fear that they are missing out on something if they are not online,” Ozimek added.

Further Reading:

Social Media Images Can Predict Suicide Risk

The Blue Whale Challenge, Social Media, Self-Harm, and Suicide Contagion

Social Media Use Disorder and Emotional Intelligence

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