Does social media negatively affect perceived relative living conditions?

People are prone to compare their assets with other persons of their social-reference group, especially above their rank (Boyce et al 2010). This leads to an important implication in explaining happiness: It´s not your income that makes you happy, it´s all about your income rank. An increasing income lacks in giving a person more happiness as long as the relative position among his or her surrounding does not improve. The emergence of social media expanded the possible size of social-reference groups, making it possible to compare your wealth with more people than only your neighbors. Also in Africa more and more people join social media, most of them being young adults, and spend time on these platforms with Facebook leading the way (Essoungou 2010). But what is the social fallout of using these new possibilities? Leads spending more time on social media deteriorate the way someone rates his own living conditions, compared to other persons? And is this issue empirically verifiable for young adults in Africa?

Is there more proof for favoring the relative instead of the absolute income? There is some evidence for using the income rank in determining happiness and some against. In any case does the surrounding of a person play a crucial role, e.g. the neighborhood or the country a person is living in. (Clark et al 2009, Sacks et al 2012). What are the effects of using social media on personal well-being? They seem to be strongly considerable: People might feel under pressure to participate actively and to keep up with the activities of other users, even unconsciously. Envy appears to be a highly significant issue when following activities of other persons, being able to decrease a persons life satisfaction. Also the emotional state is negatively affected (Krasnova et al 2013, Sagioglou & Greitemeyer 2014, Shensa et al 2016). Nevertheless was the majority of research conducted in Europe or North America, making it necessary to test if the results hold also in other regions of the world.

Taking into account the literature, the following hypotheses are stated:

  • H0: Spending more time on social media decreases the perception of relative personal living conditions of young African adults living in rural regions (and expecting a worse economic situation in their country in the near future)

Why is it relevant to test these hypotheses? First, social media is mostly used by young persons. Second, people living in rural regions probably have a smaller social-reference group than urban citizens. They are strongly linked to their local areas and often they do not have access to modern media possibilities to gain information from outside (Ismail & Graham 2009). This might change due to the rising relevance of mobile phones and social media, particularly for young people. Third, being more pessimistic about the general economic future might increase negative effects of potential social pressure through social media. Last, there was no research reflecting the effects of using social media on the perception of the own relative living conditions in Africa yet.

In order to test this hypotheses, data from the 6th round of the Afrobarometer (2016) will be used. This social survey was conducted in 36 African countries and gathered information from 53,935 respondents. Under the restrictions of analyzing the situation only for young adults living in rural areas (and with negative expectations for future development of their country), not all observations can be utilized: There are only 12,032 or 2,571, respectively. The dependent variable is giving information about if a person perceived his or her living conditions as “Much worse / Worse”, “Same” or “Better / Much better”, compared to other persons. The dependent variable is describing how often a person uses social media to gather information. Besides these two variables, variables controlling for a person´s objective wealth, living situation and characteristics are included. An Ordered Probit model is very recommendable for estimating the available cross-sectional data set with many ordinal variables.

Neither the first hypothesis nor the second hypothesis can be verified. Social media shows a significant positive effect on the perception of relative living conditions, looking at young adults in rural regions of Africa. The effect is neither the strongest nor the weakest. In total there is a positive effect of being more active in social media on the relative life situation. When taking economic expectations for the own country into account, there is neither a positive nor a negative effect of social networks recognizable. It seems as basic demands, such as having enough food and medical care, are far more important in explaining the relative position compared to others.

It is possible that envy and social pressure to compare oneself with other persons is not playing a crucial role in African countries. This might have its roots in cultural differences, e.g. stronger social ties. Another reason might be that the higher utility of the technological progress and facilitated communication is rated way higher than possible negative aspects from using them. Taking into account the lack of effect when having negative expectations about the future of development of the own country, another reason might arise. As long as obligatory demands, such as having enough food or living in security, are not guaranteed, possibilities for self-expression are not of relevance. This stands in accordance with the widely known “hierarchy of basic needs” by Maslow (1943). Industrialized nations and urban areas might appreciate the possibility of self-expression in social networks, while rural areas in developing countries might attach more value to the facilitation in communication.

What is the final conclusion? Depending on the situation of young adults in rural regions of Africa, social media is able to contribute to an improvement of how they rank their life situation. If certain basic needs are fulfilled, more happiness can be the outcome. Undoubtedly does this essay need more accompanied research to manifest its meaningfulness, for example for different societies and scenarios as well as for related topics, such as the contribution of social media to youth uprisings or migration.


Boyce, Christopher J./Brown, Gordon D.A./Moore, Simon C. (2010). Money and Happiness: Rank of Income, Not Income, Affects Life Satisfaction, Psychological Science, 21(4), 471–475.

Clark, Andrew E./Kristensen, Nicolai/Westergård-Nielsen, Niels (2009). Economic satisfaction and income rank in small neighbourhoods, Journal of the European Economic Association, 7(2–3), 519–527.

Essoungou, André-Michel (2010). A social media boom begins in Africa, Africa Renewal, 24(4), 3–4.

Ismail, Zenobia/Graham, Paul (2009). Citizens of the World? Africans, Media and Telecommunications, Afrobarometer Briefing Paper No. 69, Afrobarometer.

Krasnova, Hanna/Wenninger, Helena/Widjaja, Thomas/Buxmann, Peter (2013). Envy on Facebook: A Hidden Threat to Users’ Life Satisfaction?, 11th International Conference on Wirtschaftsinformatik, 27th February – 1st March 2013, Leipzig, Germany.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396.

Sacks, Daniel W./Stevenson, Betsey/Wolfers, Justin (2012). The New Stylized Facts About Income and Subjective Well-Being, Emotion, 12(6), 1181–1187

Sagioglou, Christina/Greitemeyer, Tobias (2014). Facebook’s emotional consequences: Why Facebook causes a decrease in mood and why people still use it, Computers in Human Behavior, 35, 359–363.

Shensal, Ariel/Sidani, Jaime E./Lin, Liu yi/Bowman, Nicholas D./Primack, Brian A. (2016). Social Media Use and Perceived Emotional Support Among US Young Adults, Journal of Community Health, 41(3), 541–549.

Data set reference

Afrobarometer (2016). Merged Round 6 data (36 countries) (2016). URL:, 15.07.2017, 01:51.

Afrobarometer (2016). Merged Round 6 codebook (36 Countries) (2016). URL:, 15.07.2017, 01:53.

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