Friday, 15 November 2013

The Paradox of Social Media

I often think of my life as a Venn Diagram. You know, the social circles which Google + uses to illustrate your groups of friends and your interaction with them, the overlapping sections where you know people from more than one group etc. It sort of works. But I think I need some kind of 3 D version, with options to be just outside each circle, or on the periphery- never quite breaking in to any one sphere. Because that's how it's always felt. It was like feeling I was on the outside, looking in.

After no small amount of consideration I believe this is a casualty of life complexity, life just getting in the way. You see what that simple 2D diagram is missing is the dimension where the space/time continuum shifted sufficiently that I missed that all important first meeting to be part of circle A because someone was ill, or when I couldn't make the follow up discussion in circle B because at that moment I was considering something completely different on topic C after a night of even less sleep than the previous one, and I still hadn't completed the necessary paperwork to access the circle D which was hurtling ahead faster than I could keep up.

It's like plate spinning in a schizophrenic multiverse that you are trying to stay in tune with. And it's not going to happen without a revolution in technology facilitating multi-place time travel with cloning, but that doesn't make it any less lonely.

Social Media as  Window to the World
That's where the internet comes in - for me, it knits it all together, providing that additional dimension which seems to touch on (almost) all areas of my life and keeps me in the loop. Without it I would certainly feel more disconnected and definitely less "complete" as a person. It's like a layer of superficial cling film which keeps me connected to all those circles which make up my life. But the internet can all too easily become something very dark and distorted. This week I have become painfully aware of the dangers on the internet. especially for our vulnerable teens.
I have used Facebook for years- before that I frequented a couple of parenting forums which I still occasionally use now. Before our second child was born I had barely discovered the internet but post-natal depression, a complicated baby and a move to a new area left me isolated and lonely. I craved interaction of any kind but had little confidence to break in to the local parenting circuits. Even once better integrated I felt drawn to online communication, a "fast-food" and "safe" alternative to making the effort to go out and socialise. Somehow with less on offer ( no visibility for a start, make-up, clothes etc don't matter online!) there was less to lose but surprisingly a lot to gain.

Social Media as a Way to Make Friends
Over the past 11 years I have made many online friends, several of whom I have gone on to meet up with, some on a regular basis. I found the opportunity to gradually get to know others in this way helped me meet people I have a lot in common with but whom I might never have met in real life. Of course online forums facilitate the meeting of like minds- and in my case provided me with much-needed support when dealing with severe reflux with our twins.

So valuable have I found such sites that I went on to support others myself. As many of you know I write a Blog with recipes and support for those catering for kids on exclusion diets. I strive to raise awareness of gut allergies, non IgE allergies that are not mystical, imaginary or figments of anyone's imagination but are, in fact, clearly outlined in the NICE guidelines of 2011. Not that that's a good topic of conversation in the playground, where I try to connect with those managing to juggle families and work, lives I can currently only admire/envy/imagine as my caring role would not permit it at present. I derive a huge amount of pleasure from writing my Blog and participating in social media but have been increasingly aware that the internet it not always the simple social interaction platform it claims to be.

Social Media as a Campaign Tool
The power of social media is  huge. Three years ago a friend and her Facebook campaign at Christmas pushed "Rage at the Machine" to No.1 in the UK music charts and raised £100 000 for Shelter. But this week I have been reminded more than ever about the power of the internet. My friend's 15 year old daughter went missing - and after three days alone in the cold after the most amazing online effort on Twitter, Facebook etc she was spotted by a member of the public and found safe and well and has been reunited with her parents. But what alarms me terribly is the appalling, shocking and irresponsible online content which was available to her and any other vulnerable adolescent. Social media might have helped save her, but it certainly has been part of the reason she ran away.

Social Media as a Dangerous Presence
We expect so much of our young people today, they need to work hard, excel in school, be environmentally aware, socially aware, responsible, respectful, beautiful... and it must sometimes feel as if they can never achieve enough, be good enough or make the grade. it was hard enough growing up twenty to thirty years ago, but the pressure of the internet was not part of my teenage years. I endured sufficient social pressure from my peers, academic pressure from myself and dread to think how I would have coped today. I cannot say it often enough to my children. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO BE PERFECT. There is no religion in the world which expects it, no parent in the world who would ask for it and certainly no happiness which can come from it. I went through a tough time for a number of years growing up and I am SO grateful that none of what I have seen this week was available to me - or my life might have gone a very different path.

We have a collective responsibility as parents, professionals, and as human beings to police and censor the internet to an appropriate degree. Filters and settings are largely a waste of time, and codes of conduct only ever as good as the people enforcing them.

Online content does NOT CREATE mental illness, depression, eating disorders etc but it provides an extension of that space inside your head where such thoughts can grow. It reinforces and legitimises the isolation and desperation, making the unreal,  abnormal and delusional suddenly real and valid. Images and other content don't cause problems themselves but they legitimise abnormal behaviours, affirm damaging mind patterns and offer a wide audience.

The Paradox of Social Media
It's such a paradox, that online socialising can be so rewarding and yet so isolating, that virtual reality can make the virtual real and the abhorrent desirable. Social media gives a platform to those who would otherwise be unheard in society and whilst this is valuable and important for so many groups seeking to raise awareness we need to recognise and acknowledge the shocking and tragic flip side.

Good Advice from Get Safe Online

1 comment:

  1. Great post - very scary and very important to get this message out there. My eldest is 12, so heading for his social networking years and the way the internet can be used by teenagers to do harm scares me.


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