Twitter Detox

Social media –a fantastic way to connect with like-minded people, to share information and to feel less alone in times of solitude (although arguably not less lonely) . Yet it does expose us all to what I refer to as ‘the big three’ – constant barrages of advertising, pornography and cyber bullies. For young people who are still in the process of establishing their identity, are spending an average of 7 hours per day online and, according to a study by Professor Rachel Thompson in 2013, can see the online world as more ‘real’ than their three dimensional existences, the potential dangers of the big three are undoubtedly magnified.

I’m currently researching an investigative piece for a newspaper on young people and social media and as such have been privy to what can only be described as horror stories on the negative impact cyber bullying has had on impressionable teens and children. And yet I wonder, for all our blustering and hand-wringing about how ‘awful’ it is that the youth of today are so immersed in the online world and how brutal they’ll be towards one another when they inhabit it, if we ought to ask ourselves what sort of example we’re setting?

I’m always telling the teenagers I work with to try and limit their exposure to technology, to question the motives of everything and one they encounter in cyber space and to value the opinions of people who have their best interests at heart above randoms who might invade their timelines for shiggles. But there are times when I don’t follow my own advice, when I find myself unduly concerned with what people who don’t know me, who are caught up in the politics of their own private social media cliques and paranoias, have to say.

I’ve been ruminating recently on what it is about my online presence people find so divisive. I’ve concluded it’s simply that my Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts reflect genuinely whatever I happen to be thinking at the time. This shouldn’t be confused with a Katie Hopkins style ‘telling it like it is’ mentality. I don’t deliberately set out to offend or shock. I just chuck my musings out into the cybersphere without fear because, I figure, that’s the most authentic way to conduct myself.

My opinions evolve constantly, because I am a human and as such ceaselessly learning. Sometimes what I say online requires revision, or explanation. Occasionally I completely change my on a topic. But you can rest assured that whatever I’m currently flinging into your feed is an accurate reflection of whatever I’m thinking at that moment. It’s never my conscious intention to cause a spat, deliberately hurt someone’s feelings or, conversely, to be sycophantic.

The problem is, most people don’t use (in particular Twitter) in the same way I do. Twitter has become the virtual stomping ground of a small cabal of anonymous bullies, whom everyone is secretly bitching about but no one will stand up to for fear of the backlash. If I had a pound for every time I received a barrage of abuse from one high profile Twitter user and twenty private messages of support reassuring me that I shouldn’t be concerned with this person’s opinion because they’re insecure/notorious for trolling/wrong I’d have enough money to buy myself a blue tick.

Recently, I was on a shoot with an ex-member of one of Britain’s most popular girl bands. She was bemoaning her regular appearances in the Mail Online’s ‘sidebar of shame’ and in particular the way she believed the comments were moderated – She said that friends had taken to the site to try and defend her weight gain/loss/fashion choices/hair colour and their comments had not made it through the moderation process, whereas those which were critical had. I told her about a Twitter account called @BestOfTheMail which regularly brings me a great deal of joy, publishing as it does the most ludicrous and LOL-worthy offerings from the Daily Mail comments section.

I told the popstar in question that she should follow the account because it might make her feel better, at which point her agent urgently and dramatically forbade her from doing so, on the grounds that if the Daily Mail saw the account amongst those she was following they’d never print anything positive about her again. To say I was incredulous is an understatement – for surely social media is supposed, ultimately, to be a bit of fun, not something which can potentially ruin your career because you happen to be following the ‘wrong’ account?

Similarly, when fourth wave Twitter feminists set about toppling page three, several of my female, feminist friends confessed to me either a) they didn’t think page three was that terrible, in the scheme of things or b) they DID think page three was pretty terrible but the campaign to ban it had irritated them so much that it had, in a perverse way, made them pro-page 3. They told me this in furtive whispers, in dark pub corners, as if imparting some terrible transgression. They could never, ever ‘out’ themselves online, they told me, for fear of the backlash.

And then most recently, when I unwittingly found myself in the midst of some trad-vs-prog teacher in-fighting and targeted in a series of aggressive and derisory tweets and blog posts by anonymous, cartonized avatars, people who used their actual photos and real names online private messaged and emailed me in their droves to reassure me that I had their support. Why didn’t they state it publicly? I suspect because it wouldn’t be worth the subsequent hassle – the endless stream of abuse or the twitchfork mob that would follow in the footsteps of their objections.

Caitlin Moran, in her latest tome ‘Moranifesto’ states that social media has allowed us all a voice and an opinion and as such heralds a glorious utopia where the common human can, in their own small way, challenge the prevailing narratives set by a privileged elite. But, unusually, I believe she is wrong. The tone might not be being set by traditional media anymore, but that doesn’t make it any better, or any more a reflection of what the majority are feeling. Because the chronicles of social media are actually written by a vocal minority of extremists and obsessives who establish a presence the majority of moderate, rational users are simply too intimidated to challenge. Twitter, designed as a playground for recreation and fun, has inevitably been populated with bullies and, since these bullies invariably left school a long time ago, is it any wonder that the current generation of children see fit to follow in their footsteps?

All of this is a very convoluted way of my explaining why I’m taking a break from Twitter, for a while. Social media in-fighting is incredibly time consuming and life is far too interesting and hectic right now to justify that kind of distraction.

I’m limiting my access to something that isn’t good either for my productivity or for my mental wellbeing. In short, I’m practising what I preach.

 

Fairness

I have a hugely overdeveloped sense of fairness. I’m most likely to be overheard saying ‘yes I know it doesn’t matter in the scheme of things but it’s the PRINCIPLE’.

Being consistently and obsessively concerned with the need to make everything fair isn’t just what propels me out of bed at 4am to do breakfast telly having got in at midnight from a school in Ayreshire, or Cornwall, or Cardiff, it’s also why I get on so well with teenagers. “That is so unfair” is the battle cry of generations of adolescents and thank goodness, because if there’s one thing society needs it’s a regular injection of fresh enthusiasm for fairness.

…..But life, as we know, is not fair and injustices, big and small, happen every day. It is a relatively small injustice that has inspired me to start this blog. People are lying about me on Twitter.

I’m aware, of course, of how pathetic this sounds. Twitter is a virtual playground and, as such, has more than its share of bullies. If at all possible, bullies are best ignored, in my experience. It’s the power they thrive on – the knowledge that they have adversely affected your life in some way distracts them from their own crippling lack of self-worth.

Sometimes it’s impossible to look the other way, though, particularly if the bully has inspired a mob mentality and their cruel jibes are subsequently echoed in a thousand different, increasingly hysterical voices. It’s particularly galling if those voices have been convinced they are doing the right thing because their only knowledge of you is confined to a virtual world built entirely of 140 character chunks. No one can glean a comprehensive understanding of anything in 140 characters.

So, over the coming weeks I’ll be using this blog to tell teachers and young people anything I think they might need to know based on my adventures in schools, charities and Parliament and which can’t wait (or isn’t suitable for) my weekly column in the Times Educational Supplement.

And in this, the first of my offerings, I want to clear up once and for all my stance on NLP (Neurolinguistic Programming) because it seems to be the root of a lot of misunderstanding.

For those who aren’t familiar with NLP, it works on the basis that you can use hypnosis to ‘reprogramme’ destructive patterns of thought and behaviour and tends to be used mainly by people who want to give up smoking and lose weight. It is not recommended either by the NHS or by the vast majority of mental health charities as a form of therapy and the evidence for its efficacy is inconsistent.

Having said all of that the therapist I went to following trying and failing to practice CBT (by reading about it in books, because the NHS considered that I was ‘not thin enough’ to qualify for bulimia treatment despite at that point bingeing and purging up to eight times per day) did practice some NLP techniques and I did find them helpful. The evidence shows that recovery times are massively reduced if one has a good relationship with one’s therapist, so it’s arguable that the success of my treatment had more to do with the fact that I liked and trusted the man who was performing the hypnotherapy on me, than the technique itself. Anyway, for whatever reason, it worked and I was incredibly enthusiastic about it, for a while.

Here is what is interesting though: Bulimia is not my primary diagnosis. I have a form of anxiety disorder – I’ve had it ever since I was about ten and I still have to find ways to manage it today. So, arguably, NLP was able to help me with some of the more destructive ways my anxiety disorder was manifesting, i.e. through an eating disorder, but not with the root cause. This is something I have only recognised in retrospect, since my understanding of mental health has increased (I recovered from bulimia almost ten years ago, now).

If anyone ever asks me what kind of therapy I used, I will be honest, but I will also tell them everything I have written above. In addition, I will add that I didn’t use NLP exclusively. I read lots of books about neuroscience and gleaned an understanding of how brains worked, which helped me to comprehend why I was thinking and behaving in the ways that I was. Once my therapy had provided the base line for my recovery, I also reverted to using some CBT techniques, because I was then in a better head space and was able to utilise them. I also talked a great deal to my (incredibly supportive) friends and family, watched a lot of TED talks and listened to a lot of Bowie. All of these were equally important in facilitating my journey to better mental health.

Why am I telling you this? Well, when I was first appointed as Mental Health Champion (CHAMPION, please note, not Csar/Tsar or however we are spelling it) for schools by the Department for Education, a group called Labour Teachers assumed, not unreasonably, that I must be a raging Tory. In an attempt to ‘take down another Tory target’ (words of one of their devotes, on Twitter) they wrote me an ‘open letter’ in which they referenced an article I wrote for Cosmo about my recovery and hinted, suggested, nay explicitly stated that I was ‘peddling NLP’ as a solution to mental health problems.

This was an understandable mistake for them to have made, but it was a mistake nonetheless. My lesson plans in schools were based initially on some work I did with psychology students at Cardiff University, are quality checked by 4 experts (including a Neuroscientist, a psychologist who worked in the NHS for 30 years, a PHD in eating disorders and self-harm and a scientist at Cambridge University) and are constantly evolving according to the latest research passed along to me by our partnership charity, Young Minds.

I am not a doctor or a psychologist, it is true, and neither do I claim to be. I’m actually a writer, by trade, with a degree in English. I’ve always seen my job as more of a bridge, or a translator between experts and young people, between teachers and government, between the public and the third sector.

Anyway, this letter went out into the word and all the schools which weren’t the 250 my organisations visit annually and therefore didn’t know me said (again, completely understandably) ‘oh no!’. This wasn’t helped by the Sunday Times printing a piece in which I was called a ‘former model and magazine columnist who has been made a Mental Health Tsar’. They made no mention of the three schools I visit per week or our (now multi-award winning) classes and of course it made a really excellent (if deliberately misleading) news story and people were hopping mad. Hell, I would have been hopping mad, if I wasn’t me.

As a result, I developed a couple of ‘Twitter enemies’, but I just muted them and got on with the job in hand, which was, as I saw it, winning over the education sector. As someone who has one foot in the media and one in education I’m constantly astounded by the way the teaching profession is reported upon vs what I actually encounter on the ground. The same is true, incidentally, of young people, who are generally not the work shy, celebrity obsessed layabouts they’re so often portrayed to be. I wanted (and still do) to help young people and the people who teach them by whatever means I could, but to do that I needed their help.

A squillion conferences and a weekly column in TES later and I was making some headway. Teachers were calling me a ‘breath of fresh air’. They were stopping me in the street and taking my hand and just repeating the words ‘thank you’ over and over again. I was honoured, overwhelmed and more determined than ever to fight for positive change.

Then, on Thursday evening, I called the DfE’s Learning Tsar Tom Bennett a ‘bellend’ on Twitter (I didn’t tag him, I just threw it out there, with a question mark ‘seems like a bit of a bellend?’) after some opinions he expressed in the Evening Standard on poster making and DVD watching in class and how that isn’t ‘real teaching’. That was extremely wrong of me. I don’t actually have a viable defence of my actions, I can only say that I genuinely, stupidly, didn’t think Tom Bennett would ever see it. Of course he did and so I apologised, deleted the tweet and by all accounts (judging from the exchange we had thereafter) he seems like a thoroughly decent chap and not in the slightest bit bellendy, for the record.

On Friday, TES sent me the entries for the Teacher Blog Awards, of which I am one of a panel of judges and in my excitement, I tweeted about this. And these two (fairly disparate) and seemingly unremarkable events conspired to stir up the whole NLP controversy again, as my old Twitter trolls reared their heads, writing blogs about how I’m not qualified for my role as judge. In the tweets and blogs that followed they state that I’m not a teacher (true) or a blogger (false, I guest blog all over the gaff and my blogs on TES receive amongst the highest click volume, hence why I was asked), that I called Tom Bennett a bellend (which is true but not strictly relevant) and I’m an ‘NLP salesman’ (false, both in terms of job description and implied gender). They mixed things which were true with things that weren’t in order to create the impression of truth which, incidentally, was a technique favoured by Hitler.

And that isn’t fair. It isn’t fair in the slightest.

So, in an attempt to derail all this nonsense, I’ve created a little outlet for the truth, or at least my version of it, to seep out.

I’m open to the views of teachers and young people who might think I’m not getting everything right. Indeed, I’m almost definitely not getting everything right. But I want to reassure everyone who reads this that I’m motivated by giving a gigantic fuck about young people, schools and the society that we live in. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have taken an unpaid government role working alongside a party whose policies I have historically criticised, in an attempt to negotiate my way to some positive outcomes.

So thank you to everyone who has already subscribed to this little movement I’m trying to start and I hope that, via this blog, I can undo some of the unfairness and bring the truth to the people who matter.

Stay tuned.