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

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?

George Gillett is a freelance journalist and medical student. He is on Twitter @george_gillett and blogs here.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.