Psychologists find there are four types of social media user; which one are you?

Social media users fall into four categories and each is associated with personality and behavioural traits, according to research by psychologists from Washington University in St Louis, US.

The researchers devised a new ‘social media use scale’ model based on four ways people engaged with social media: belief-based, consumption-based, image-based or comparison-based. 

The study is published in the journal Assessment.

In developing the model, the researchers undertook three separate studies, ultimately narrowing in on 17 social media activities and these four types of users.

“Social media is here to stay, so clarifying how people use social media and raising awareness of these findings are crucial first steps toward ultimately helping people understand how they can avoid the negative aspects of social networking and engage in healthier social media usage,” says researcher and study author Alison Tuck.

The first study was designed to create a comprehensive list of social media activities.

The researchers asked 176 university students (aged 18-23 years) to spend three minutes using their own social media on one or more sites – including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, and/or LinkedIn – and then asked them to write an open-ended description of their activities and enjoyment. 

Examples included objective activities adding subjective or emotional aspects where possible, such as ‘read news content which I found upsetting’.

From an initial list of 45 representative types of social media activities, including ‘read the news’ or ‘posted a picture’, the researchers refined the list to 31 activities for the second study.

In a second study, 311 new participants (aged 18-23) were asked to rate how frequently they engaged in these 31 activities over the previous week, with frequency of use measured on scale from never (1) to hourly or more (9), and their level of enjoyment using social media. 

The participants in the second study also completed ten personality and behavioural surveys, measuring traits like self-esteem, fear of negative evaluation, depression and social anxiety.

Using factor analysis – a statistical technique that helps reveal common patterns in large data sets – the researchers identified four main social media use categories: belief-based, consumption-based, image-based and comparison-based. 

A third study was designed to test these findings. The researchers tested the four factor structure with a new group of 397 participants (aged 18-22 years), using the same assessment process as the second study. 

The third study included additional questionnaires on the frequency of social media use, individual self-promotion, social anxiety, social security and life satisfaction. The results of study three confirmed the four factor assessment model fit well.

“Our data suggest that these types of uses are distinct constructs, each associated with its own set of unique traits,” Tuck says.

The four types of social media user

The results show each of the four social media use types correlated to personality and behavioural traits.

Image-based social media use focuses on activities related to presenting a positive image and how a person is viewed by others. This type was positively associated with a desire to put oneself on display and make a good impression associated with poorer social and emotional well-being (such as narcissism and depression).

Comparison-based use, activities involving comparing oneself to others, or one’s own past, are associated with poorer social and emotional well-being, such as concern relating to physical appearance and fear of negative evaluation. 

Belief-based social media use, sharing or reinforcing negative opinions and beliefs on topics was associated with poorer social and emotional wellbeing  (greater depression, seeking emotionally upsetting content) and low levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness. 

“In addition, belief-based [social media use] was uniquely associated with increased boredom susceptibility and a propensity to engage in drama,” the authors write.

Meanwhile, consumption-based use – using social media to consume entertaining content – was associated with greater emotional well-being (such as agreeableness and self-esteem) and highest enjoyment of social media. 

The final social media use scale measures the frequency of 17 distinct activities shown in the table below, based on the four types of social media use.

Social media use typeActivities
Image-based activities
Made/shared a post or story about something positive that was personally about me
Looked at how many people liked, commented on, shared my content, or followed/friended me
Read comments to my own content
Edited and/or deleted my own social media content
Played with photo filtering/photo editing
Comparison-based activities
Compared my body or appearance to others’
Compared my life or experiences to others’
Reminisced about the past
Belief-based activities
Made/shared a post or story about something negative that was personally about me
Made/shared a post or story about something negative that was NOT personally about me
Commented unsupportively or disliked/”reacted” unsupportively on other’s post(s)
Sought out content that I morally or ethically disagreed with
Consumption-based activities
Scrolled aimlessly through my feed(s)
Looked at others’ stories
Navigated to others’ profiles in my social network (e.g., friends or friends of friends)
Navigated to others’ pages who I do not know (e.g., influencers or other famous people)
Watched videos such as memes, news content, and how-tos/recipes
Adapted from Washington University in St Louis

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