Without fail, as regular as the turn of the seasons, the blooming of the flowers and the birth of lambs in green pastures, you can bet that there will be at least one story in the national press or on television news telling us how social media and computer use is bad or our mental health.
Keep your eyes out for it. You'll know when you see it. You'll get a case study about someone who spends 36 hours at a time online, chatting to people that they don't know. You'll get a concerned mental health professional sadly shaking their head. They'll explain the huge potential disaster people are storing up for themselves by living their lives online and neglecting human contact. You'll hear words like 'internet addiction', 'isolation' and my particular favourite 'elaborate online fantasy life'.
It's my contention that social media is potentially one of the most liberating and useful things that has ever happened to people with mental health difficulties, but to understand why I think that we're going to have to take a tiny trip through history.
The history of the future
Some of the worry about social media comes from the fact that it seems like something very new. If we define social media is as online media that normal people make and which normal people can interact with and change by doing so, then it's not a new thing at all. Once upon a time, when the internet was young, it was a world only known to a few people in darkened rooms and computer science labs. It was a space that was entirely made by individuals. In a sense, the early internet was nothing but social media. If you wanted a website about something, you made it yourself. Much of the early internet was based around bulletin boards, the forerunner of forums like Black Dog Tribe. People talked to each other, shared things and built things together. Then something happened: People realised that you could make money from the internet.
The first commercial age of the internet involved the building of big sites that were full of information and then later things that you could buy. Professionals built them and we consumed them.
It was also the golden age of internet forums and chat rooms. These were places where people discussed things, had arguments, fell in love, fell out of love and generally did everything that you might do in your local pub but without the pork scratchings and the smell of beer soaked carpet.
Then we had the second internet revolution, which people in exciting glasses with laptops called web 2.0, literally the second version of the web. The vision was that everything on the internet would become somehow interactive and the big buzzword was 'user generated content'. What they basically meant was that websites would become more about what members of the public created using them as a platform rather than about what professionals chose to publish on them. That was when we saw the explosion of blogging and the growth of places to share your own content like youtube and flickr.
It was when web 2.0 arrived that we started to get the first dark mutterings about the internet as a dangerous place that would eat unwary souls. Why? Mainly, I think, because the internet was returning to being something that was made by people and something that people used to interact with each other rather than something that people passively consumed.
People controlling things seemed, in the eyes of some commentators, to equal chaos and danger. To them, the fact that internet was a way for interact, find each other and build things together seemed to be a recipe for disaster. 'How do we make sure people don't do bad things?’ they asked. 'How do we make sure that people don't get sucked into an endless round of pointless interactions?'
If you want to divide things into ages, we're now in the social media age. Instead of us all being consumers of websites who just turn up, read or watch what is presented and then maybe leave a comment, it's us who are actually the main show. Social media platforms like facebook and twitter don't, in themselves provide us with anything. What they do is provide a platform which we fill up with stuff ourselves, stuff that other people choose to look at or not. They are less websites than communications mediums.
In short, we're actually back where the internet started, with people making things and collaborating with each other, not someone else out there doing it for us. When we use facebook we chat with friends, share things with people and they share with us. When we use twitter we follow people and they follow us, we share, retweet and discuss the things which people choose to tweet about.
Prior to the internet, it had never really occurred to people that the great value of communications technology might be the ability to communicate with people you've never met before. I suppose it had happened in marginal ways, like the popularity of CB radio and phone ins on talk radio. In many ways, communications technology had been all about protecting us from communications with strangers and making sure that we only interacted with people we knew. Now we live in a world where it has never been so easy to get to know complete strangers and to build and make things alongside them.
So, what does this all mean for us?
Generally speaking, people like people. It’s other people that bring us new ideas, challenge the ideas we have and bring new things into our lives. When we have a mental health difficulty, it can sometimes present us with big challenges in finding new people or even in keeping in touch with people we already know.
It always puzzles me that critics of social media seem to think that the opportunity to meet strangers online somehow detracts from the opportunity to meet people in real life. I meet people I've met online in real life all of the time. In fact some of the most rewarding relationships in my life have come from friendships with people that I've met online first.
For the first time ever, people with mental health difficulties are finding ways to connect with other people with mental health difficulties both across the country and across the world. On twitter I talk to people every day who are just getting on with life living with a mental health difficulty. None of us are celebrities. Most of us aren't journalists or broadcasters. We're just people sharing bits of our lives that we choose to share with people with whom we choose to share them.
What frustrates me about the internet doom mongers is that they never seem to be aware of the fact that different ways of interacting with people online have different meanings and different values to different people. They seem to reduce social media to an image of someone sat in front of a computer without seeing that someone sitting in front of a computer can be doing any one of millions of different things.
What I'm seeing when I go onto sites like twitter is thousands of people with mental health difficulties meeting and getting to know each other, each reporting from the front line of their own life. I'm seeing blogs that turn into communities. I'm seeing people with mental health difficulties heaving a huge sigh of relief that there is finally someone who understands.
Beyond that I'm seeing the opening of a space where mental health difficulty, what it means and what you can do about can be discussed, debated, argued about, moaned at and even laughed about. What I'm seeing, in short, is the growth of the mental health community of which we've always dreamed.
I'm also seeing online actions that have offline effects. People are meeting each other online and then taking their relationships offline, finding that there are other people in their town, their city, their county that understand.
Of course, the quality of your relationships online depends on what you do there. If you spend all of your time in online games shooting other people and shouting 'Noob!' into a headset, then maybe you aren't going to come away with new lifelong friends. That doesn't mean it's impossible though.
Much like the rest of life, what you get out of the internet often depends on what you put in, especially in social media. Be rude and you'll meet rude people. Be aggressive and you'll meet aggressive ones. Be helpful, kind, respectful, interested and interesting and the chances are that you'll find people that you like.
From new people come new opportunities, chances to build new things and to be part of things that we were never part of before. Sometimes we spend lots of time online because we're already social people with lots of friends. Sometimes we spend lots of time online because we don't quite have the people or things in our lives that we need.
Social media doesn't need to be an either/or activity. There's always something insufferably smug about the person who takes great pride in telling you they don't 'do' social media, in the same way that people tell you that they don't have a television or don't have a mobile.
In our hands, on our desktops, we have a magic window that lets us meet people we would never have run into otherwise. With possibility there is always risk, but I think for many of us with mental health difficulties, we’re finding that social media gives us new freedoms and new possibilities.
If we want to stop the internet doom mongers judging us, we need to stand up and say: “Yes, I have a mental health difficulty. Yes, I use social media. And, you know what? It’s something that adds something great to my life not takes away from it. And it’s not something that’s going to go away.”
I’ll see you on twitter (come and find me, I’m @markoneinfour)
Mark Brown is the editor of One in Four magazine, the UK’s only lifestyle magazine for people with mental health difficulties written by people with mental health difficulties www.oneinfourmag.org