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.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.