Time to Switch Off

Perhaps one of the saddest things about the untimely death of television personality Caroline Flack this weekend, is the fact that it doesn’t really feel like a surprise.  Any novice chef knows that if you keep the gas on high even when you know what’s inside the pan is rapidly heating up, it will eventually boil over.  I haven’t really been following all of the news about her in recent months but – somewhat telling given what has since happened – I’m aware how much coverage there was, despite her social media posts alluding to experiencing depression and dark times.  The coverage has remained relentless, almost. I can’t begin to imagine how tough it must have been for her to have constant reminders of her situation across the press and social media, and to read such vitriolic, personal comments from people she’s never met.

This is the latest in a long line of celebrity suicides and the impact of social media finds itself firmly in the spotlight again, with good reason.  Social media has a lot of benefits when you retain its use to being purely about pinning happy memories and re-connecting with long lost friends and relatives.  But it’s also got a far uglier, beastlier side that has taken  thousands of victims over the years.  By its own merits of accessibility,  social media strips away any notion of a safe haven from ridicule and contempt against those whom a mob of strangers seem to feel deserve it.  Celebrities.  Professionals.  Politicians.  Local personalities.  Fellow residents of a town.  Classmates.  If you slip up from being your best for the smallest of moments, it won’t be forgotten.

I think back to when I was sixteen and how there was a phase when I used to really dread the walk home from school.  A girl who lived nearby, who I had known my whole life and who had never liked me, would often be hanging around by the park on my route home, and would shout abusive things at me with her friend as I passed.  I was “ugly”.  I was a “sad loser”.  My clothes were “disgusting”.  These insults may sound banal now, but they were the sort to really assault and interrogate the mind of an impressionable sixteen year old.  I would dread the walk home so much, that without explanation to anybody I started staying behind at school for an additional thirty minutes every day literally twiddling my thumbs just so that the girls would be gone by the time I would walk past the park.  Teachers would ask me why I was still hanging around and I couldn’t bear to be honest about it.  It was a bit of an inconvenience being late home, and far from the most head-on method of dealing with an issue.  It was pure avoidance, but it worked.  I didn’t have to face the bullies.  The academic year finished, they went to another school and I could walk home in peace.  On time.  Problem over.

But imagine if social media had been as commonplace then as it is now?  I think it would have been a lot harder for me – and the thousands of others affected by the various forms and levels of bullying – to find the sort of solace that could be achieved by explicitly avoiding a person’s physical presence.  Eventually, MSN Messenger became guilty enough for funneling school drama into the weekends, but at least you still had control over who could contact you on it, and what you read.  I feel so much sympathy for impressionable teenagers these days who don’t have access to the same sort of save havens that we did in the pre-social media age.  The challenge for schools to tackle bullying has become hundreds of times more difficult, as the problem is no longer restricted to the playground or bus ride home, but the invisible walls of the internet.  No wonder mental health concerns are rife these days, particularly in adolescents.

And the same, of course, goes for adults, as is visible to all in the sequence of deaths in reality t.v – a concept which goes hand in hand with social media.  Reality t.v has been the public’s guilty pleasure since the turn of the millennium.  It’s good if it’s dramatic.  It’s not if the contestants all get along famously well, and treat with another with love and respect throughout the series.  Real people are placed in synthetic situations designed specifically to evoke emotions.  Broadcasters place morsels of fire onto the end of long rods dangling over the commercial break knowing that it’ll keep viewers glued to their seats.  And it does.  And after the several weeks of this, the person who people like the most is declared the winner, gifting the viewing public the justification to make judgments and personal comments, and that they do – everywhere.  Mistakes or bad hair days get magnified as viewers revel in the public shaming on Facebook , on news articles, on Instagram… all the sorts of places which are easily seen, especially by those to whom the comments refer.

Given that reality t.v bases itself on reality in order to try and make viewers feel affinity with contestants, I think this is bloody scary, and I don’t think that waiting another thirty minutes is going to be a solution that works here.  For celebrities like Caroline Flack, for teenagers struggling to keep up with peer pressure, or even for anybody.

It’s time to switch off from this barbaric practice for good.

Song of the Day:  MU330 – Fragile

This is a band I used to love when I was around the same age that I dreaded walking home from school, funnily enough. Best described as “Weezer with horns” MU330’s music used to bring so much joy to me, and still does.  I had completely forgotten about this song until I randomly thought about them the other day and thought I’d hit them up on Spotify.  This song is a complete gem – and when you listen to the words – it seems to be pretty apt.  I was interested to see it had only received 1k views in 6 years on YouTub when I think it’s impossible to not love.

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