Before I had a smartphone, I could barely leave the house alone. In the past few years, I have endured major surgery recovery, bereavement and being hit by a car at 40mph – all thanks to the friends in my pocket.
Young, vulnerable people struggle with their mental health. Older people like me do, too. Sometimes it gets too much, and the support available isn’t enough, and people take their own lives. It’s horrible, and it’s sad, and I understand friends and family getting angry and looking for someone or something to blame. However, it feels like a kick in the gut when apps that I use to talk to my friends of all ages, that help my mood and make me want to keep going, are blamed for the deaths of young people.
You won’t find me arguing against platforms like Pinterest and Instagram doing more to stop the spread of misinformation, especially around health issues and eating disorders, even if I think it’s going to be hard to do that at scale. Twitter need to sort out its abuse problem, and quickly. But people aren’t struggling with their lives because of technology. It’s the society they live in that lays the groundwork for mental health problems.
If I’m honest, it isn’t Twitter or Instagram that make me able to cope with autism, anxiety, depression and PTSD. It’s people, the society I create for myself, and the technology just brings them closer.
It’s hard to hear that Jake Braithwaite, autistic like myself, didn’t deal well with abusive comments. Like me, he bought an iPad and set up social media accounts so he could make friends – but for him, it didn’t work out. Jake was emotionally overwhelmed. I understand that. And like many of us, he found it difficult to get support to keep him safe and well.
But I don’t think being addicted to social media is what made Jake want to end his life. It can seem compelling to advise that people with mental health conditions and learning disabilities should stay clear of social media and restrict their time online. I have worked with young people who had e-safety lessons in school and received similar advice: don’t talk to strangers online, don’t spend too much time on your phone. But why is it so much easier to “other” people like us, than it is to offer the support to live our lives well, on and off social media?
According to this year’s Prince’s Trust Youth Index report, teenagers say that social media pressurises them to succeed. This makes sense if they follow online people who are successful, like celebrities and influencers, and friends who present the most positive versions of their lives online. That’s why “rinsta” and “finsta” Instagram accounts exist, where you can present the perfect version of yourself on the public “rinsta” (real Instagram) account, and have a second “finsta” (fake Instagram) account where you share the funny, embarrassing, sad and imperfect parts of your life with people who you actually know and trust. (I do something similar myself, but with the Stories function on my main account. I know fewer people look at that.)
But it’s important to recognise that the report also tells us that young people feel more confident online than offline, and that a third of them feel like social media gives them a positive voice where they can influence positive change. I understand that, too. I met a lot of the “pocket friends” I talk about online, where I felt more confident and articulate, and that made things less awkward and broke the ice for when I saw them in person.
My pocket friends are there in the group chats and in my mentions to send me pictures of nice things when I am miserable or anxious. They are also there to encourage me when I want to do something important and make a difference to the world. They aren’t a substitute for mental health funding, and I have to remember to step away from arguments that have escalated online – but on balance my phone and social media make me happier than they do sad.
Without social media, how would we know about Greta Thunberg, who is 16 and autistic, and how would she have inspired so many young people in different countries to go on strike from school for our climate? Following her gives me hope – so I’d like her to be one of my pocket friends, too.
Penny Andrews is a writer and researcher based in Leeds.