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
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A good apprenticeship is about more than box-ticking

The political apprenticeships arms race, promising ever increasing numbers of apprenticeships but with little focus on quality, is helping nobody. 

The political apprenticeships arms race, promising ever increasing numbers of apprenticeships but with little focus on quality, is helping nobody. Playing a numbers game often means the quality and the personal touch that turns a placement into a career opportunity can be lost. The government has set a target of three million new apprenticeships by 2020. In London Boris Johnson set a target for 250,000 apprentice starts, but fell short by over 100,000. Both targets miss the point; any target should focus on outcomes, not just numbers through the door.

Policy makers need to step back from the rigid frameworks and see what works on the ground.  For me this involved eating a bacon sandwich, which is arguably a risky exercise for politicians.  I was seeing how the owner of the Bermondsey Community Kitchen and Café, Mike, has transformed the space above his café into a training kitchen teaching young unemployed people the skills they need to gain qualifications to work in restaurants.

The posters on the wall spell out the choices available to the young people. They make it explicitly clear that there is an alternative to a life in prison, which some of the trainee chefs have already experienced, with pictures of celebrity chefs including Jamie Oliver, Delia Smith and Gordon Ramsay outlining how they worked their way to where they are now. None of the young people have had an easy start in life. Barriers they face include autism, lack of literacy skills, insufficient funds to pay the fare to the café and criminal records. But Mike and the team running the kitchen are determined to give them the chances every young person deserves. From City & Guilds qualifications, work placements and ensuring they have a job at the end of the process, this is the type of grass roots project that the government could learn from. With two groups of eight students over three half days, this is skills training that is about as personal as it gets. The young people are enthusiastic about the course, the practical skills they are learning and optimistic about the future.

The project is funded partly through the café, but mainly through grants and donations (including pots and pans from Raymond Blanc and funding from trusts as well as the local council). Mike has plans to expand. He wants premises with space for a nursery so young mothers who might otherwise struggle to complete a course can attend, he has a vision for two or three more similar enterprises across Southwark. I have no doubt he will achieve this but the challenge for policy makers is making it easier for people like Mike who are delivering flexible qualifications and delivering better results. Bureaucratic processes, lengthy forms and refusals would have put less determined people off. As the funding for skills is devolved, there is both an opportunity and a challenge to look at how innovative models can be supported. Unless more is done to ensure groups that might be defined as ‘hard to reach’ get opportunities, there will always be significant numbers falling through the gaps in a sometimes impersonal system.

Over 60 per cent of the apprenticeships in London focus on low level qualifications with little prospect of employment upon completion. Many skills based apprenticeships fail to match demand, the booming construction industry for example is crying out for skilled workers and with all parties agreeing new homes are a priority its surprising to learn that in London only 3 per cent of apprenticeships are in construction.

Apprenticeships need to focus on leading to work, and work that is skilled and pays enough to live on. They should be about opportunity not opportunistic employers. In a report published in October 2015, Ofsted was critical of apprenticeships saying too many of them ‘do not provide sufficient training that stretches the apprentices and improves their capabilities. Instead they frequently are being used as a means of accrediting existing low-level skills, like making coffee and cleaning floors.’

The new apprenticeship levy charged to businesses with a wage bill over a certain amount could be a useful way of enhancing opportunities but the definition of apprenticeship needs to be refined. On a recent visit to the iconic Brompton Bikes factory, the London Assembly Economy Committee was told that although the firm has to pay the new levy as a result of its size, they have a bespoke way of training their apprenticeships so they have the skills to get jobs with Brompton Bikes at the end of the process. Because this tailored training doesn’t meet the narrow government criteria they aren’t formally accredited apprenticeships and thus Brompton are unable to claim any funding back from government despite their excellent work.

I am increasingly frustrated that the most exciting and inspiring projects I visit don’t always meet the criteria for funding. We are doing something wrong if people are asked to fit something that works into a form that meets criteria rather than rewarding their successes. Instead huge amounts of public money are being put into funding low quality low skilled apprenticeships that sometimes appear to be more about avoiding the minimum wage. This is not just a waste of money; it is a waste of the lives of the young people. As the Bermondsey fishmonger we bumped in to on the way out of the café told us, sometimes what works is smashing the box, not ticking the box.