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
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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