Study shows that Facebook social circles cause stress

Illustration: Bokeh Credit: Robin Blue

Jim Dougherty

featured contributor

One of the most popular blog posts for social media bloggers to scribe is the one where they tell you what not to do on any particular network.  At their best these posts are an earnest effort to capture community norms and at their most ingratiating they are rants about people the blogger doesn’t care for.  I’ve never found them particularly illuminating, but a new study from the University of Edinburgh may indicate that the vast majority of Facebook users care immensely how people in their networks perceive them.  In fact, it stresses them out.

When your mom and your boss friend you on Facebook….

What the Edinburgh study concluded was that people have different circles of friends on social networks, and that people feel pressured to conform to the standards of these social circles while appeasing all of the others.  Depending upon the diversity of the social circles, it’s a pretty hopeless task.  And it produces distress for these users.  That’s a problem.  Facebook, Twitter and most social networks want and need you to increase your social footprint.    The realization that increasing social “friends” increases people’s stress is troublesome for businesses forecasting perpetual growth.

Last month, Newsweek ran an article “The Torture of Modern Friendship” where they address some of the complications of having to project a deliberate image to appease an increasingly diverse circle of friends (including your mom, your boss and your Burning Man comrades).  So, the concept of Facebook causing distress is not a revelation: it’s increasingly part of the social media experience.

Is fragmentation the future of social networking?

I’ve written about this before: people’s knee-jerk response is that filters would fix everything.  Funny thing about filters: very few people are using them.  And that’s an important thing to pay attention to going forward.  Google Plus was developed as the social network with the most intuitive filters, yet Facebook still kills Google Plus for users and for time on site.  In the abstract, filters make a lot of sense.  In reality, they are a hassle and are underutilized.

An unintended consequence of the (seemingly) endless social network offering is that there’s always someplace else to go, and that’s what you see in Gen M (the multitasking generation, Gen Y + Z).   They’re simply taking their conversations elsewhere, because THAT’S much easier than setting up filters.  Right now Tumblr and Instagram are hot (Tumblr is in the Top 10 websites worldwide), but it could just as easily be Path or Pheed or MySpace (or one of thousands of other choices).

There isn’t an alternative to Facebook with the size and scope that it enjoys.  But if size and scope have become a disincentive, then are niche networks the social future?  And are teenagers foreshadowing this future right now?  And if niche networks are the future, how many more “What not to do on X” posts will the world have to endure?

What do you think?  Is appeasing social circles on Facebook stressful?  If so, what is the solution?  Is there one?

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Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty

Writer and chief of miscellany at
I'm the guy that wrote the article you just read. Sorry for the typos.
  • AmyMccTobin

    When G+ was first in beta I was thrilled with it BECAUSE it was full of digital marketers, photogs and tech geeks – my kind of folks. I got bored with it when it opened and filled up… and I rarely go there anymore. It didn’t kill FB because FB is too smart, but I am convinced that niche networks work – if there was a marketer only network I’d be in there for hours – NOT a LinkedIn group of spammers though :)

  • Carol Lynn Rivera

    Guilty for starters, of just writing the “stop doing these annoying things on Twitter” blog post. But in my defense it was meant to be actually helpful for business bloggers who quite often don’t know any better!

    That said, it’s funny how many people get so stressed over who’s listening to what they say online. Filters are only as good as your last mistake using them, or the next time someone hacks a network and exposes everything to the public. My philosophy is pretty simple: assume everything you say is public and that your mother, spouse, priest, therapist, boss, etc are all going to see it. Social networks can be fun but that doesn’t make them a frat party.

    I think there’s a good possibility of fragmented networks in the near future. Look how many have popped up on only a few years. It makes sense that the younger crowd would be less interested in Facebook. Facebook was (is) the high school/family reunion of a specific generational group. When we all found out we could find our high school boyfriends and long lost cousin Bess, it was pretty exciting. But younger people are already connected, in a million ways. I don’t think that solves the problem of who might be listening but it does narrow groups down quite a bit.

    • jimdougherty

      Ha! I am guilty as well. Let me qualify that by saying that I prefer some to others! I don’t think I drew out that point as well as I had hoped to, but meant to say that despite what you or I say is acceptable, there are many subcommunities within these networks that have rules of etiquette, and the stressor for folks appears to be appeasing one community at the expense of others. But I meant to link that statement to one of my own posts that say the same thing…. I think it sounds a little snarkier than I meant it. :) I love you philosophy on social networks and I agree… that said if I was 20 I might feel differently and I think that’s the case with younger users abandoning Facebook for niche networks. Thanks for commenting and reading!

  • Nick Meehan

    I definitely think niche social networks are the future. They allow for greater engagement around certain topics, and allow users to showcase that particular side of their personality.

  • Online Strategies

    On dealing with social media stress, it’s good to remember that What you say in your social networks will is content is there to stay for the years to come and could work against you. Employers before selecting a candidate go for close watch about the prospective employees about their social networking activities to decide whether to hire them or not.

    • jimdougherty

      Great insight, though if I were 19 years old I probably wouldn’t heed it (and I imagine most teenagers don’t). Thanks so much for the comment!

  • esta h. singer

    Great post! *YES* stressssssful! I’m one of the very few who really tries to keep facebook ‘true’ friends (family ’cause i have to, :-/) ~ I get invites all the time, and have settings pretty tight. I wish I could simply cancel out, but Facebook, is nearly impossible to escape. I’m at 198; keep promising myself if I go over 200 I’m out! Ha. My devoted time is really on twitter. I prefer Google+ but feels out of the social loop.

    Yes, teenagers are foreshadowing. Feels like we’re living one enormous cultural anthropology class! It’s fascinating to be in the middle of evolution, aware. How many past generations can say that?

    Solution, none. We’ll keep morphing, and evolving. Just like classes of the past, we’ll get our 15 minute breaks, then back into the trenches! Think about it, we’re even *graded* now (klout.)

    Though in fairness, I would *love* a solution! What was that song… “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” 😉

    • jimdougherty

      I totally get why you didn’t accept my Facebook invitation now, Esta! What a wonderful comment – I wrote a piece for Waxing Unlyrical about my experience about sharing content on Facebook with my boundary-challenged mom. It is stressful, though my Facebook stress comes from wondering how people subscribing to my profile will react to the copious Instagram shots of my kids. Thanks so much for commenting, Esta!