On my way into work last week I listened to the campaigner and actor, Adam Pearson, talk to Elizabeth Day on her How to Fail podcast. Adam has lived with neurofibromatosis since childhood, a condition which has altered his physical appearance. Instead of allowing his physical symptoms to affect his mental wellbeing, Adam has a self-proclaimed ‘F*** it’ attitude and has become a well-known campaigner for several causes, including disability discrimination. Aside from his dry sense of humour and anecdotes, what struck me during that interview was a comment he made about the work he does with young people in schools as part of his campaign role. Given the immense pressure in modern times to adhere to expectations exacerbated by social media to be unwaveringly happy, beautiful, politically-minded etc., Adam encourages young people he encounters in schools to take a social media detox- i.e. a switch-off of all social media channels for a period of time in favour of real social interaction. It’s not a new idea, but it’s one I found myself nodding along to as I prepared to stand up in front of the very young people he was talking about. Yet despite my outward reaction, internally my gut told me I wouldn’t do it; couldn’t do it even. Switch off Instagram scrolling, avoid Facebook lurking, stop Twitter trawling? No. How would I get through a TV ad break? What would I do while the tea cooked or the kettle boiled? How would I know what my favourite social media personalities had been up to?
Fast-forward three days and I found myself sat in a car park uninstalling any media links to the current news feeds from my mobile phone, including the otherwise inoffensive BBC News app. It had been less than 24 hours since the news had broken about the death of the TV presenter, Caroline Flack, by suicide. Given all that has been said since her passing, ironically it was social media that brought the news into my living room that Saturday tea time. The rest of that evening was spent scrawling online media posts to both verify and read reaction to her death. My reaction, like so many others’, was gut-wrenching. The death by suicide of a 40 year old woman, a TV presenter whose face was warm and friendly and attributed to light entertainment; a woman who was close in age to me, and pertinently similar in age to my own sister when she took her own life 3 years ago was too much to bear.
It is a sensation that is hard to describe. I have lived through the post-Diana era; the period around her death and funeral was one of national mourning never witnessed before. I watched with both scepticism and fascination at the crowds that lined the streets as her funeral cortège passed by and at the sea of flowers that flooded the entrance to Buckingham Palace. How can Derek from Buxton feel so moved by the death of an ex-princess that he has taken 5 days off work to camp out in the capital city just to catch a glimpse of her hearse? I can’t say that I understood it at all aged 16. Almost 25 years on, and it is something that strikes a chord.
They say that when you become a parent, watching a child in distress on the news becomes an unbearable sight. As though someone has turned on an ‘empathy switch’ inside of you, it’s no longer a sense of ‘what if that were my child?’, but instead ‘that is my child’. The instinctive reaction to want to soothe suffering is transferred from your own experience of parenting, towards another unknown child. Grief, I have found, is the same. Once experienced, it heightens our ability as humans to empathise with others going through the same circumstances. It was not mawkish fascination that had me scrolling through online feeds to glean the reaction of all and sundry to Caroline Flack’s death, instead it was an echo that rebounded from my own experience with the same trauma. Trauma which in the big scheme of things, is not so far away from my day-to-day life today. Still, so much of my life has changed since that time that stepping back into that world left me feeling as vulnerable as stepping out into a wild storm dressed only in summer attire. And if you will allow me to extend this metaphor just a moment longer, exposing myself to the wind and rain was not something I deemed essential. Instead, much like our ancient cat, after a period deliberation surveying the weather from the front doorstep, I turned on my heel, closed the door behind me and went back to the warmth of the fire inside. In short, I did what I thought I couldn’t and unplugged my much-loved pastime of social media jiggery-pokery.
Some may view these actions as a form of avoidance- a head-in-the-sand approach. However, if my life experience to date has taught me one thing, it is the value of self-care. Switching off this week has allowed me a moment of distance, not denial; reflection on events, not rejection of the facts. The irony is not lost on me that more likely than not, you have come to this blog via a social media channel. It is undeniable that our current world has a place for the positive aspects that life online facilitates, yet it is a line by Philip Larkin has been bouncing round my head this week. ‘Man hands on misery to man,’ he writes, ‘It deepens like a coastal shelf’. While I do not share Larkin’s pessimistic views on the perils of procreation, the latter line still seems to resonate with recent events. Each voice- in the real world, or in the cyber world- is a grain of sand which over time has the potential to form something greater than its individual part. Do we want to create a ‘coastal shelf’ that is a platform for others to use to launch themselves off, or a step up for them to use as a springboard as they reach for their ambitions?
Perhaps once in a while we all need to experience a bit of black-out to remember who we really are; our avatars will always be waiting for us online if we and when we ever wish to plug back in.