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

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White supremacists are embracing genetic testing - but they aren't always that keen on the results

Users of far-right site Stormfront are resorting to pseudo science and conspiracy theories when DNA tests show they aren't as "pure" as they hoped.

The field of genomics and genetics have undergone almost exponential growth in recent years. Ventures like the Human Genome Project have enabled t humanity to get a closer look at our building blocks. This has led to an explosion in genetic ancestry testingand as of 6 April 2017 23AndMe, one of the most popular commercial DNA testing websites, has genotyped roughly 2 million customers.

It is perhaps unsurprising that one of the markets for genetic testing can be found among white suprmacists desperate to prove their racial purity. But it turns out that many they may not be getting the results they want. 

Stormfront, the most prominent white nationalist website, has its own definition of those who are allowed to count themselves as white - “non-Jewish people of 100 per cent European ancestry.” But many supremacists who take genetic tests are finding out that rather than bearing "not a drop" of non-white blood, they are - like most of us a conglomerate of various kinds of DNA from all over the world including percentages from places such as sub Saharan Africa and Asia. Few are taking it well.

Dr. Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan, of UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics and the research institute Data and Society respectively, presented a research study (currently under peer review for publication) at the American Sociological Association a week ago, analysing discussion of GAT on Stormfront forums. Panofsky, Donovan and a team of researchers narrowed down the relevant threads to about 700, with 153 users who had chosen to publish their results online. While Panofsky emphasised that it is not possible to draw many quantitative inferences, the findings of their study offer a glimpse into the white nationalist movement's response to science that doesn't their self perception. 

“The bulk of the discussion was repair talk”, says Panofsky. “Though sometimes folks who posted a problematic result were told to leave Stormfront or “drink cyanide” or whatever else, 'don’t breed', most of the talk was discussion about how to interpret the results to make the bad news go away”.

Overwhelmingly, there were two main categories of reinterpretation. Many responses dismissed GAT as flimsy science – with statements such as a “person with true white nationalist consciousness can 'see race', even if their tests indicate 'impurity'".

Other commentators employed pseudo-scientific arguments. “They often resemble the critiques that professional geneticists, biological anthropologists and social scientists, make of GAT, but through a white nationalist lens", says Panofsky. 

For instance, some commentators would look at percentages of non-European DNA and put it down to the rape of white women by non-white men in the past, or a result of conquests by Vikings of savage lands (what the rest of us might call colonialism). Panofsky likens this to the responses from “many science opponents like climate deniers or anti-vaxxers, who are actually very informed about the science, even if they interpret and critique it in idiosyncratic and motivated ways".

Some white nationalists even looked at the GAT results and suggested that discussion of 100 per cent racial purity and the "one drop" rule might even be outdated – that it might be better to look for specific genetic markets that are “reliably European”, even though geneticists might call them by a different name.

Of course, in another not totally surprising development, many of the Stormfront commentators also insisted that GAT is part of a Jewish conspiracy, “to confuse whites by sprinkling false diversity into test results".

Many of the experts in the field have admitted to queasiness about the test themselves; both how they come to their results and what they imply. There are several technical issues with GAT, such as its use of contemporary populations to make inferences about those who previously lived in different places around the world, and concerns that the diversity of reference samples used to make inferences is not fully representative of the real world. 

There are other specific complications when it comes to the supramacist enthusiasm for GAT. Some already make a tortous argument that white people are the “true people of color" by dint of greater variation in hair and eye color. By breaking up DNA into percentages (e.g. 30 per cent Danish, 20 per cent German), Panofsky says GAT can provide a further opportunity to “appropriate and colonise the discourse of diversity and multiculturalism for their own purposes". There's is also, says Panofsky, the simple issue that “we can’t rely on genetic information to turn white nationalists away from their views."

“While I think it would be nice if the lesson people would take from GAT is that white nationalism is incoherent and wrong. I think white nationalists themselves often take the exact opposite conclusion."