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GCSE results day reveals the sinister side of social media

As students across the country receive their GCSE results, many will be realising that there is no escape from comparisons with their peers thanks to the growth of social media. But does it represent the truth?

Students open their exam results at Winterbourne Academy, near Bristol. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Students open their exam results at Winterbourne Academy, near Bristol. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

I vividly remember my GCSE results day. The school was late to open and, as I waited anxiously, my phone buzzed with text messages, Facebook posts and tweets from friends, curious to find out what grades I’d been awarded. Much to our shared envy, there’d be the kid who smugly posted about his 13 A*s on Facebook. Or the class clown who tweeted that his A-level grades spelt out the word “DUDE”.

Today, students across the country will be realising that there is nowhere to hide on exam results day. Thanks to the omnipresence of social media, students are consistently faced with comparisons to their classmates. Although at first this may appear to be a harmless, modernised version of traditional classroom competitiveness, social networking sites present a rather more sinister challenge to students’ self-esteem and general wellbeing.

Two months ago, there was media outrage when Facebook admitted to exposing its users to a psychology experiment without their permission. The basis of the study was to “manipulate” the news feeds of thousands of users, in an attempt to measure the “emotional impact” of limiting what posts they encountered.

Although the results of the study aren’t widely available, other research into social media has been conducted. For example, a 2012 study found that regular users of social media were more likely to believe that their peers led happier lives than their own, as well as thinking that life was unfair. Such evidence has led to the development of theories describing users’ “fear of missing out”, or FOMO, the term used to describe the anxious feeling you are missing out on an event or activity. It has been suggested that the interactive and instantaneous nature of social media intensifies the incidence of FOMO effect.

Further concerns about the link between mental health and social media have been raised by the charity Anxiety UK. In one survey, for instance, almost half of respondents reported that social media had changed their behaviour, over 50 per cent of whom said that the change had negatively affected their life. A decrease in confidence after comparing themselves with friends online was a common reason for this, suggesting that FOMO may be relatively common among social media users.

However, it’d be misguided to draw any wide-reaching conclusions from a single study. Indeed, it is uncertain whether people are using social media for relief from their own insecurities, or whether the use of social networking itself is causing anxiety.

Nonetheless, regardless of whether social media sites are harming the health of their users, it’s clear that such sites don’t provide an accurate representation of their user’s lives. This was demonstrated in a mathematical proof by scientists in France and Finland, who referred to a “generalised friendship paradox”. The basis of the theory is that users that are more “successful” are likely to have a disproportionate number of friends on social media sites. Hence, their “successes” are more likely to appear on a greater number of people’s news feeds, and your own news feed is more likely to detail their achievements. Additionally, users generally only publicise the positive aspects of their life on social media – as if to edit their life before projecting it to the world. Considering this, it’s understandable that users’ self-esteem may suffer from exposure to social networking sites - especially if the achievements of certain friends are statistically proven to receive more attention.

And it’s not just Facebook that encourages comparisons between users. Career networking sites such as LinkedIn are equally complicit in provoking FOMO and challenging students’ self-esteem. One friend I spoke to described the “feeling of inadequacy” she experienced when looking at her friends’ profiles on the website. The service allows users to view the CVs of their “connections” – often not a good idea if you’re likely to become envious of your friends’ experiences.

Indeed, Dr Przybylski, a researcher at the University of Oxford, has explored the trend between FOMO and social media use. He described how further problems might be caused when social media is used to develop one’s own career, describing the “very real fear” of a FOMO effect existing among those using career networking websites. Similarly, he stressed the importance of separating “where you the person, the professional and the professional mask begin and end”. It seems that as we turn to social media to help develop our career aspirations, we become more exposed to the risks that social media poses to our wellbeing.

On exam results day, your news feed may seem like a hub of celebratory posts detailing the successes of your genius friends. Yet social media presents a skewed representation of success, and far more of your friends will have chosen not to reveal their grades, likely with good reason. 

If nothing else convinces you that your results aren’t quite as bad as you might think, take comfort in the fact that a recent study revealed that three quarters of adults have never discussed their GCSE grades in a job interview. Maybe, on behalf of all those students who are panicking about their results, you could tell that to the smug student who’s posting about his 13 A*s on his Facebook wall?