Features

The Internet Confessional

Can blogging improve your mental health? Sophie Lodge investigates in ‘The Internet Confessional’. 

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In October 2012 15 year old Tallulah Wilson was hit by a train after years of suffering from clinical depression. In January this year her mother condemned the poor censorship of harmful blogging websites like Tumblr that she believed had fuelled her daughter’s death. However, the inquest revealed Tallulah’s Tumblr account was deleted six days before she committed suicide – on her mother’s request. Today the world of blogging balances between a sanctuary and a snake pit, and there is increasing evidence to suggest that the venture into blogging can have a serious effect on our mental health.

Since the dinosaur years of the internet, blogging has been the backbone of the web. At the moment almost 75 million blogs have been created on WordPress, and Tumblr has over 44.6 billion (that’s right, billion) blog posts. While we can guess a large majority of these are gifs of ‘Sherlock’ or ‘Supernatural’, it’s undeniable that writing a blog has become one of the most fashionable and celebrated communication forms to come out of cyberspace. Our blog-addiction has led not only to some of the greatest journalistic endeavours of our time, but its power as a tool for personal growth and emotional development, available to anyone with an internet connection, is its greatest achievement.

As with everything else in our lives, there is a growing trend to broadcast our thoughts and emotions on the web. While this can be a healthy emotional outlet, a coping mechanism or a way to process hardships and open up in a non-intimidating environment, it can also shift into something more poisonous. Like Alice down the rabbit hole, more people are slipping into the wormhole of cyberspace with an adverse affect on their mental wellbeing. Even back in 2008 research on Myspace was showing bloggers were more likely to be depressed, anxious and stressed than other internet users. Leeds University found those with internet addictions were much more likely to suffer from depression. Over the last ten years the number of young people being admitted to hospital because of self-harm has increased by 68% percent. When push comes to shove our addiction to an internet confessional – as well as causing future problems for your cyber footprint – is doing more harm than good.

The fact of the matter is that even though blogging can sometimes be comforting, it can be incredibly harmful. Writing down your feelings in a place you visit everyday is as detrimental as shouting it back at yourself. The temptation to express your feelings just once or maybe twice spirals out of control until bloggers are left feeling more isolated and insecure than before. The internet becomes a stress-free refuge to recoil into whenever life presents itself with a problem. I might be bias in that I always tend to face my problems with a sledgehammer, but frequent late night calls with our wifi are denying us so much more than they are providing.

And this is true for us students more than anyone. For most of you it’s the first time moving away from home, the first time moving away from friends to a completely new place, and that can be hard on the emotions. Once that honeymoon freshers’ feeling wears off and the first slog through an eleven week term begins it can be really tough. It’s ok to admit that. Deadlines start to pile, the days get darker, phone calls home become less frequent. Last year I got through autumn term by eating my own body weight in Doritos. This year I spent it spontaneously crying at any given moment and drinking more jagerbombs than I care to admit (we won’t talk about the Christmas social, I woke up covered in tinsel and smashed baubles). The fact is that being a student is more stressful than many people think, and the emotional toll can be heavier than most people imagine. When we’re at our most vulnerable, away from the support system we have developed at home, it’s more likely we will confide in our blogs than in our housemates.

It’s important to note here that I’m not just talking about your tweets about missing the bus. I’m talking more about the deep stuff, about the times when you feel like shit and there is no one else to talk to. There isn’t a person on the planet who hasn’t felt the same thing, and as students (unsure of where you’re going next, or why you’re even here in the first place) we’re some of the people it affects the most. We’re at an age where we need to express our feelings more than ever because of the changes we are taking on, yet our generation is becoming more inclined to spew these problems into the vacuum of the net than confess them to a close friend.

In theory blogging is no different to a diary. Letting out your feeling can be a good thing, and blogging can function as your own personal support group. It can definitely feel more comfortable to tell a faceless stranger how you’re really feeling. There are no awkward looks, no call backs or check-ups a week later; no repercussions whatsoever. Our own editor-in-chief at Quench is currently writing his own blog about his experiences with mental illness; “blogging is probably the most collaborative way of writing. It helps seeing others share their experiences, and articulating mental illness is a way someone can understand what they’re feeling, as well as a way to try and share that feeling with others.” It can help us connect with people in a similar situation, helping us understand we’re not the only ones out there, and help us get the advice we need without fear of judgement. Just writing it down is a form of healthy expression most counsellors would recommend. Combined with our unfortunate British view on mental health, which still makes discussing pressing problems a social taboo, the internet offers an anonymous support system devoid of judgement.

The problem arises when blogging becomes our only support system. The reliance on a machine as the only way to communicate personal issues is a Pandora’s Box that’s hard to escape. As social networks and online communities grow in popularity our physical social interaction drops, which comes with a whole host of problems regarding insecurity and isolation. Not only are we deprived of that basic human connection that comes from interaction (my mum, a nurse of 30 years, still believes one of the best medications is a good hug), but you tend to retreat more into yourself. Not taking the first step to talk to someone makes it even harder to take that step another time. Instead it just rolls out of proportion and those people never confide in anyone but their computer screens.

While it could be said that blogging is like a diary, as it acts as a narrative to structure your feelings, it is a public diary. When you click ‘Post’ you know your entries can be read by anyone, yet their most potent toxin is that they can be read by no one. There is no guarantee – no safety net – that someone really is listening. Nothing can feel more isolating than being surrounded by people and yet feeling ignored, and this same situation applies to the net. It could even be more overbearing since there are even more people to be ignored by. Other users can also become an incredibly negative influence in such a sensitive place. The internet is a haven for harmful forces on all kinds of mental health problems, from pro-anorexia blogs to ‘depression blogs’. Tumblr has recently updated their community guidelines to draw the line between support and the encouragement and glorification of self-harm. It’s a growing problem on the net that is still hardly being caught by censorship, even though it can be one of the most harmful influences. Tallulah Wilson posted photos of her own self-harm on her blog. Furthermore the ability to find other people blogging about the same things can do a lot more harm than good. While some people may see this as a support group to talk to others who understand us, in the long term they cannot help us move forward. It’s like asking an alcoholic how to stop drinking; you can’t get advice from someone who is stuck at the same obstacle as you because they can’t see past it either.

Earlier this year my eldest brother graduated with a degree in Mental Health Nursing so I asked for his professional take on the subject. His advice to bloggers is to ask ourselves whether it has become a positive or negative force in our lives.  “The anonymity and ease of access can really help people to reach out and ask for help and advice, or get something off their chest. There are some people who have no one to talk to.” However the concept is subjective to every person; you need to assess whether the net is actually making you feel happier, or more isolated and insecure. “Like any way of coping, you have to evaluate how it affects the way you feel, in the short and long term. That way you can investigate what works for you.” It’s important to be objective and keep this in mind, for while we might feel immediate and inconsequential relief, in the long-term it may affect us more than we realise.

To watch someone else slowly retreat into a cyberworld can be incredibly difficult, as an outsider it is easy to see their situation from a distance. It might be tempting to try to intervene, but understanding their situation and accepting it can be a lot more effective than obstructing their only form of expression. Like everything else in our lives we need to understand the use of moderation, not only in our own internet lives but in our interference with others as well.

The internet isn’t the dark, deep pit of paedophiles and murderers the media make it out to be. While my mum still thinks computers can steal her credit card information, we know on a day-to-day basis the internet is benevolent. Bearing this in mind, however, it is also important to keep track of our own internet usage; its part in our lives has become ever-more dominant. Tallulah Wilson is an extreme example of a dependence on blogging, yet she also illustrates the importance of finding a system of support. It may seem like the negative images she was exposed to were generating her depression, but they were actually keeping the worst at bay. We shouldn’t be naïve to the consequences of internet reclusiveness, yet we should not be ignorant of their benefits. We need to acknowledge our use of the net and blogging and decide whether or not it is an influence we want – not need.

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