We recently appeared on BBC's Free Speech and after having had a couple of weeks to mull and chew over one of the topics, I felt I needed to offload my musings on it, so here goes...
On air we took a tentative toe tip (that turned into a big splash) into mental health and posed the question: Is modern life driving us mad? My knee jerk reaction was to scream 'YES', check my twitter feed, brainstorm a Facebook rant, then finally take a 'selfie' of my pained face for Instagram, but on a moment's reflection, I saw it was our generation's need for instantaneous results and electric pace, that was the problem. Self-gratification and attention seeking have long been a secondary 'need' but before you would've had to follow your crush to the lunch queue or strategically drop leading questions to receive a compliment. Now all we have to do is post a sad smiley to receive a momentary flurry of concerned (whether genuine or not) smiley faces back. This is what we have to address, the need to be 'on call' and contactable 24/7, and the need for control through apps and planners - even my bus journey is timed to the second and every eventuality, short of an elephant on the road, is covered.
This creates unnecessary anxiety when things, inevitably, don't run as smoothly as our fabby dabby dooby bus tracker app says it should. As a generation we leave nothing to chance and time is definitely NOT our friend anymore, our hands must be active, which means our brains are constantly ticking. Which leads me on to the 'over thinking' and extra value we place on other people's lives: seeing Sally's perfect all inclusive holiday in Dubai and Steve's exceptionally attractive girlfriend, plastered on your home page, is OBVIOUSLY going to make your Saturday morning munching left over Chinese feel inadequate. When in reality, Sally has spent the entire holiday chasing cockroaches with a wet flannel and Steve's girlfriend actually smells of the takeaway food I've just consumed.
We've always had the concept of 'keeping up with the Joneses', so is social media just a vehicle for the Joneses to show the parts of their lives they want everyone to see, when we all know there's dust under their immaculate sofas and skeletons in their dark closets? If so, we have to stop blaming Mark Zuckerberg and co. and start giving our egos a good talking to instead.
Secondly, everyone is worried for today's youngsters as they live with the 'terror" of the internet, but it does beg the question 'Is it just part of our generation's growing up process?', just as an ACTUAL WAR was for our grandparents? Since the beginning of age teenagers have felt isolated and confused by the change in their bodies, raging hormones, sexual experimentation and a face full of pimples and angst, so is social media and its sense of community a passage of escapism from this? Yes, pouting profile pictures and dramatic statuses are a vehicle for attention seeking and self-gratification, but is this not just replacing writing on toilet seats and stalking your crush around the school corridors? I guess the danger comes when popularity is now quantifiable in 'likes' and followers - it's a dangerous measure and isn't based on reality. Are we now praising our youngsters for a witty Facebook status and inventive use of image filters instead of being captain of the sports team or helping out at the Girl Guides? Then even more dangerous still is the malice we see in comment boxes and timelines: what's missing in these teenagers lives that hiding behind a computer screen typing vitriol to their peers is a source of entertainment? A subject for another time perhaps, but to bring it back around to mental health, I think we are in danger of 'normalising' and overusing clinical terms. I'm all for talking about mental health in an open and honest way, but are people misusing it? For example, the amount of tweets we receive from young girls saying they will commit suicide or they suffer depression because 'X' celebrity does not reply to them is astonishing.
Although I do fully understand they need to be taken seriously due to the recent spate of suicides due to cyber bullying, they need to realise these are loaded and sensitive words for a lot of people and are not to be used lightly. Maybe this is all part of the realisation of adulthood, testing boundaries (and a near pathological self-involvement) is part of growing up - how many kids tell their mums they hate them, it's normal, but what's different now is how social media lets us broadcast these feelings. My urge is to reply and ask if a tweet from one of the One Direction lads really going to improve your standard of living/help you achieve your goals/drive you towards success? They are placing value on unobtainable and seemingly worthless things, and surely that can only lead to disappointment, sadness and, in turn, low self esteem. I spoke to a close friend about it, and she quite rightly questioned if these feelings are really any different from the feelings that adolescents have always had? Obsessive, teenage love is an important developmental process - we all go through it, it's just that now there are new ways of expressing and experiencing it. She reminded me that people grow out of it though, and actually the experience usually teaches you some valuable lessons.
Yes, she was disappointed that she'd never married Jonny Wilkinson, but she didn't think it lead to low self-esteem, it helped her to deal with the romantic ups and downs of the future. However I do think these celebrities were less accessible to us back in those days, so we had a sense of detachment these youngsters don't.
Finally, what also causes added pressure and uneasiness is the 'archive' element to our online virtual lives, in that, everything we say, think or look like is out in the public domain, once its out there we can't really get it back: gone are the days of throwing a glass of red wine over a cheating, vile ex boyfriend, now you can name and shame him in just 140 characters for the whole world to see. This notion of 'viral' exposure has us all clasping our smart phones in fear of screen grabs airing our cheekiest, dustiest skeletons in our cyber closets. I guess the equivalent is a scathing article in the local paper or an announcement at a neighbourhood dinner party, so is the volume of viewers that has us all on edge? Judgement meets us square in the eye everyday, but is it the fact that our judges are behind a screen, anonymous rather than sniggering in front of our faces? For me, it's the mass sea of eyes and their potential to rain down my twitter timeline and into my life, but is it actually my REAL life? Should we all just take twitter spats and Facebook gossipers at face value and put less importance on them, the distance from what you're saying allows you to say things you never would in real life, to someone's face. The virtual reality of it makes us feel safe to say unkind things, and that makes all of us as a whole, feel less safe. The key problem is the FACES, there are humans behind the words, even if they are typed ones.
Social media has allowed our world to expand and climb in ways we never thought imaginable, is it not our role to grow and mould with it, as we have done in the past? With the industrial revolution we had to learn the 'health and safety' of the machinery, do we not now just need a new manual for our keyboards and minds? Is modern life driving us mad? Yes, I believe it is, but the people that can pull us through the flurry of RT's, trolls, blocking and reports, is ourselves. Let us not be consumed with this 'virtual monster', but dance with it and celebrate its strengths instead.