Stephanie Painter's death was swift and painless.

At 9:10 p.m. on Feb. 11, she bid her 121 Facebook friends goodbye with one last "poke" (mood: sorrowful), then left the virtual world peacefully with a quick click of the mouse.

"It was hard to kill the profile I'd spent so long creating, but I felt it was the only way out," said Painter, 27, a personal assistant from West London. "Facebook was damaging my relationship with my boyfriend to such an extent that if I hadn't done it, we wouldn't be together now."

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Painter found out that what had seemed like an innocent way of reconnecting with old friends and colleagues had opened a huge can of worms.

"Within a couple of months, a number of ex-partners and people that I'd had random flings with were asking to be my 'friend' in Facebook. I didn't feel I could decline them and I admit I was intrigued by what they were up to," she said.

"But not only did that ignite unwanted feelings in me, it also made my boyfriend Danny, a 28-year-old TV producer, incredibly insecure. As one of my friends, he could view my profile page, my friends' list and my 'wall' (an area on which messages are posted).

"Reading my ex's flirty messages, however innocent, made him insanely jealous. He hated the fact that I was in touch with men I'd once slept with and that some of them had posted up old pictures of us together which I had no power to remove.

"In the end, Facebook was causing so many arguments between us that I decided the best thing would be to log off. As soon as my Facebook profile died, our relationship improved."

Painter is not the only one of the social-networking site's 31 million users to have committed what is being dubbed "Facebook suicide."

Although it's impossible to estimate exactly how many people have "deactivated" (the site has yet to release figures), there are a growing number of Facebook suicide groups on the site.

One, the Facebook Mass Suicide Club, encourages members to "cancel your account before it consumes you. Join this group so we can do it together!"

So far, 143 people have joined. [Facebook makes it very difficult to cancel an account, but deactivation is easy.]

Started in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg, a student at Harvard, Facebook is now the 13th most used search engine in the world, with 150,000 new people signing up every day.

Barely a day goes by without a story in the press about the site, from privacy concerns over its plans to make profiles accessible through search engines such as Google, to reports that more than 70 per cent of British businesses have moved to restrict or ban Facebook.

Considered more popular with slightly older and more upscale users than other networking sites, such as MySpace, it has recently made the transition from niche concept to something with mass appeal.

So why are people deciding to put a virtual noose around their online necks?

It's easy to be misinterpreted

Carolyn Axtell, a senior researcher at the Institute of Work Psychology and Management School at Sheffield University in northern England, thinks, as in Painter's case, that it has a lot to do with the potential for misunderstanding.

"There are a limited set of cues available on sites like this," Axtell explained. "You don't get the subtleties of voice tone, facial expressions or body language you usually have when interacting with others, and that can make interpreting the meaning of messages difficult."

"You can write something flippantly, which others take seriously, or come across as aggressive when that's not your intention at all," she added. "I can see how relationships can be damaged as a result, and when that happens, people will want to leave to put things right."

Matt Holme, 24, a derivatives broker from West London, said he wrote his Facebook suicide note after he saw pictures of himself online which he didn't even realize had been taken.

"When I was introduced to friends of friends, they'd recognize me from my profile on Facebook," said Holme. "I no longer had any anonymity and that was disconcerting."

Phillip Hodson, a fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), said disappointment may be an inevitable part of social networking online.

"Building a Facebook profile is one way that individuals can identify themselves, making them feel important and accepted," he said. "But this can lead to disappointment once people realize how insignificant their online existence really is. Not only are online friends not necessarily real friends, they can turn out to be people you don't wish to know at all."

"I'm not surprised that those who feel their virtual life is unsatisfying commit online suicide," added Hodson. "I really think we make a mistake if we hope to find our collective raison d'être via sites such as Facebook."

"I'd rather spend time with people in person"

Clare Missingham, 34, a yoga teacher from North London, logged off a month ago when she realized how pointless her online profile had become.

"I'd already kept in touch with the friends I wanted to, so apart from communicating with a few people overseas (whose e-mail addresses I had anyway), it wasn't much use to me," she said. "It didn't make me feel more connected, and I'd rather spend quality time with people in person than sit in front of a computer turning them into vampires or buying them virtual presents."

The "vampire" and gift-giving features are online applications Facebook users can add to their profiles.

But are there more serious psychological issues that could be triggered by reconnecting with old friends or flames? Should the ghosts of the past remain just that?

Over a lifetime it's normal to lose touch with people as interests and circumstances change, but Facebook may alter the natural ebb and flow of friendship.

"Renewing old ties in this way can feel false," said Andrew G. Marshall, a marital therapist and the author of the recently published "I Love You But I'm Not In Love With You."

"Generally, people have just a handful of really close friends. If you feel the need to get in touch with someone from the past, you have to ask yourself why you do," Marshall added. "It could be indicative of a problem or unhappiness in your current self and, therefore, a desire to reconnect with a younger one. But once people realize this is not a solution, they'll leave and try to solve them another way."

Hodson agreed.

"The idea of renewing old friendships is appealing, but it doesn't come without difficulties and dangers," he said. "You may still be lusting after the girl in 3B, but is she lusting after you?

"If you were bullied at school and suddenly the bully asks to be your 'friend,' all those bad feelings and insecurities you felt as a 10-year-old could come flooding back."

Patricia Rogers, a counselor and fellow of the BACP, even worries that the same feelings that lead to "Facebook suicide" could trigger the loneliness and lack of self-esteem felt by people who really do take their own lives.

"It could be incredibly damaging for the ego to realize that you haven't got as many friends as you thought you had, or that those friends aren't particularly meaningful," she said. "Comparing yourself with others, a big preoccupation on sites such as Facebook, can be damaging psychologically. So, as a precaution, I think that people who leave should be carefully monitored, or at least checked up on, and then referred to counseling resources if necessary."

Getting a real life

Yet other users say they've ended their lives in the virtual world for far more prosaic reasons — so that they can resume life in the real one.

According to Facebook, users spend an average of 20 minutes a day on the site, although a survey by the British price-comparison Web site uSwitch.com found that some people spend more than 10 hours a week on social-networking sites, the equivalent of 24 days a year.

Think of how many pub lunches with real friends could be enjoyed in that time.

Increasing numbers of companies are banning employees from using social-networking sites on the job. Officers with London's Metropolitan Police have been warned that they could be fired for it, and universities have started using social networking to catch students behaving badly.

So perhaps it's no surprise that some people would rather commit Facebook suicide than that of the professional sort.

Fiona Blamey, 36, director of the London-based PR agency Prompt Communications, killed her profile after a month because she felt that it mixed up her personal and professional lives.

"Being on the Internet under my real name makes me feel anxious. It's so easy to be indiscreet on there, but it feels a bit like getting drunk at university and playing [Truth or Dare]," she said. "It's fun at the time, but afterwards you really regret it. You long to be more guarded, retain your self-respect and maybe even a bit of mystique."

When things get personal, you're vulnerable

"Self-disclosure can indeed be a problem on the Internet," said Axtell. "The fact that you can't see or hear other people makes it easier to reveal yourself in a way you might not be comfortable with. You become less conscious of the individuals involved (including yourself), less inhibited, less embarrassed and less concerned about how you will be evaluated."

"Once you realize that things have become too personal, you'll feel vulnerable — who wants everyone to know what you did on the weekend?" Axtell added. "Logging off becomes the only way to recover privacy."

Martin Cloake, 42, a sports copywriter from South London, said he left his Facebook life a few months ago because he also felt uncomfortable about putting his private life on public display.

"It all felt a bit stalkerish, the way that you could find out what people were doing almost daily, see pictures of them (or yourself) that other people had posted and trawl through other people's lists of friends to see who you knew," he said.

For Holme, the last straw came when he logged on at the start of January and noticed that one of his friends had changed his profile on Christmas Day.

"That was it," he said. "I shot myself on the spot."

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