Why Facebook is stressing us out

New study finds social network gives us the heebie-jeebies.

With friends like these, who needs enemies? A new study has found that the more Facebook "friends" you have, the more likely you are to feel stressed out by the social networking site.

Psychologists from Edinburgh Napier University quizzed around 200 students about their use of Facebook and concluded that, for a significant number of users, the negative effects of Facebook outweighed the benefits of staying in touch with friends and family.

Facebook is now the most-visited website in the UK, and has over 500 million users worldwide. If Facebook were a country, it would be the third most populated in the world, behind only China and India.

The researchers found that among their students, those with the most Facebook "friends" were the most likely to be stressed out by the site, 12 per cent saying that it made them feel anxious, 32 per cent saying rejecting "friend" requests had led to feelings of guilt and discomfort, and 10 per cent saying they don't like getting "friend" requests in the first place.

"The results threw up a number of paradoxes," said Dr Kathy Charles, who led the study. "For instance, although there is great pressure to be on Facebook there is also considerable ambivalence among users about its benefits.

"Our data also suggests that there is a significant minority of users who experience considerable Facebook-related anxiety, with only very modest or tenuous rewards," Dr Charles said. "And we found it was actually those with the most contacts, those who had invested the most time in the site, who were the ones most likely to be stressed."

Some students also said they were anxious about withdrawing from the site for fear of missing important social information or offending their friends.

"An overwhelming majority of respondents reported that the best thing about Facebook was 'keeping in touch', often without any further explanation," said Dr Charles. "Like gambling, Facebook keeps users in a neurotic limbo, not knowing whether they should hang on in there just in case they miss out on something good."

She said other causes of tension included purging unwanted contacts, having to use appropriate etiquette for different types of friends and the pressure to be inventive and entertaining. That's surely something Steven Fry will identify with: he briefly abandoned the rival social networking site Twitter after one of his "followers" accused him of being boring.

Dr Charles added: "The other responses we got in focus groups and one-to-one interviews suggests that the survey figures actually under-represent aspects of stress and anxiety felt by some Facebook users, whether it's through feelings of exclusion, pressure to be entertaining, paranoia or envy of others' lifestyles."

The most common searches on Google starting with "Are Facebook friends . . ." are: "Are Facebook friends really your friends?" and "Are Facebook friends real?". Real or not, it seems having a lot of "friends" on the site is a source of stress for many.

In January, a survey in the US by the Toluna market research firm and the phone firm VTech Communications found many suffering from what some have labelled "digital stress": anxiety brought on by having to be constantly accessible for work (33 per cent) and the apparent need to keep up with the latest technologies (20 per cent). In a New Year promotion, VTech asked punters how they intended to avoid such stresses this year, and guess where they hosted the competition? You guessed it: on their Facebook page.

Jason Stamper is NS technology correspondent and editor of Computer Business Review.

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

Photo: Getty Images
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Bomb Isil? That's exactly what they want

The government appears not to answer the nature of its enemy, warns Maria Norris.

As MPs are set to vote on further airstrikes in Syria, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that the government does not fully appreciate the complexity of the problem Isil poses. Just a cursory glance at its magazine, the pronouncements of its leaders and its ideology reveals that Isil is desperate for Western bombs to fall out of the sky. As Martin Chulov argues, Isil is fighting a war it believes was preordained since the early days of Islam. Isil’s obsession with the city of Dabiq, in Northern Syria, stems from a hadith which prophesises that the ‘Crusader’ army will land in the city as a precursor to a final battle where Islam will emerge victorious. Dabiq is also the name of its magazine, which starts every issue with the same quote: "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify -- by Allah's permission -- until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq". Isil wants a war with the West. If we don’t negotiate with terrorists, then we also should not give them what they want.

Further, bombs are indiscriminate and will inevitably lead to the suffering of those trapped in Isil territories. Isil is counting on this suffering to swell their ranks. Civilian suffering from airstrikes only underline the narrative that the West is at war with Islam, which plays directly into Isil’s hands. And despite misleading headlines and the genuine government concern with individuals fleeing to Syria, Isis is supremely unpopular. It is no wonder that its magazine is filled with glossy adds begging people to move to its territories.  You cannot be a state without people. Terrorist attacks such as Paris thus have a two-pronged purpose: they provoke the West to respond with its military, and they act as a recruitment drive. The fact that fake Syrian passports were found around the sites of the Paris attacks is no coincidence as Isil are both seeking to stem the flow of refugees from its territories and hoping to provoke an Islamophobic backlash. They hope that, as more Muslims feel alienated in the West, more will join them, not just as fighters, but as the doctors, nurses and teachers it desperately needs.

In addition to this, airstrikes overlook the fact that Isil is a result of what Fawaz Gerges calls a severe, organic institutional crisis in the Middle East. In a lecture at the London School of Economics earlier this year, Gerges pointed out the dysfunction created when a region that is incredibly resource rich also is also deeply undemocratic, riddled with corruption, food insecurity, unemployment and poverty. This forms an institutional vacuum that is filled by non-state actors as the population does not trust its political structures. Further, the civil war in Syria is also the site of the toxic soup of Middle Eastern state dysfunction. Iran supports Assad, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, fund anti-Shia groups in Syria. Throw in the Kurdish conflict, Turkey’s ambiguous position and Russian bombs, it is difficult to see how airstrikes will solve anything.

Finally, it is crucial that Isil is seen as a direct result of the Iraq war. The American-led invasion destroyed the institutions, giving the Shia majority power almost overnight, creating deep dissatisfaction in the Sunni regions of Iraq. On top of this thousands of foreign fighters flooded Iraq to fight the invaders, attracting disenfranchised and angry Sunnis. The result is that since 2003, Iraq has been embroiled in a sectarian civil war.  It is in civil war, inherently connected to the Iraq War, that you find the roots of Isil. As even the Prime Minister concedes that ground troops are necessary, albeit it regional ground troops with its own set of problems, it is important to consider what further monster can arise from the ashes of another ill-thought out military intervention in the Middle East.
We have had decades of military intervention in the Middle East with disastrous consequences. Airstrikes represent business as usual, when what we actually need is a radically new approach. Who is funding Isil? Who is buying its oil? How to curb Isil’s recruitment drives? What can be done about the refugees? How to end the conflict in Syria? What happens to Assad? These are questions hopefully being addressed in talks recently held in Vienna with Russian, Ira, the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states. Airstrikes do not answer any of these questions. What airstrikes do is give Isil exactly what it is asking for. Surely this is reason enough not to bomb Syria. 

Maria W. Norris is a PhD candidate and a teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her PhD is on the UK counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 and its relationship with identity. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.