By Indigo Jones
Disclaimer: This article discusses sensitive subjects involving mental illness and suicide. If you are affected by the topics mentioned in this article, or are worried about somebody else the 24 hour number for Samaritans is 116 123, or email them at [email protected]
In a previous column for Gair Rhydd titled “The Changing of looks and likes”, I discussed the negative implications of social media on mental health. In this article I touched upon the pressure put on social media users to keep a certain image, this isn’t limited to everyday users but also celebrities. The ability to share tabloid articles at the click of a button – whether they are slanderous or not – puts an undeniable pressure on celebrities to make their lives look picture-perfect. The effects of endless negative headlines about individuals has a lasting impact on celebrities, even if they put on a brave face and hide the influence it has on their everyday lives.
Following the tragic death of the former Love Island presenter Caroline Flack, people have called for a law to be made that restricts the extent that the media are able to “knowingly and relentlessly bully a person”, according to a petition on 38 degrees. After three days the petition had gathered over 750,000 signatures, demonstrating exactly how many people believe the severity of the endless slandering of celebrities in the media. In the lead up to her passing, Caroline Flack’s name was frequently sprawled across the headlines of various tabloid newspapers. This was especially evident in the lead up to her trial which was meant to take place in March, following her arrest for alleged common assault on her boyfriend. As a result of this constant focus on Flack within tabloid newspapers, consumers would often abuse the presenter and share hateful messages on social media where they often discussed her personal life.
Caroline’s parents recently shared a previously unpublished Instagram post written by Flack herself, where she stated that celebrities often brush negative press under the carpet, and that “the problem with brushing things under the carpet is they are still there and one day someone is going to lift that carpet up and all you are going to feel is shame and embarrassment”. Following her arrest, the presenter was very much aware that her life had completely changed and there was no way of sweeping anything under the carpet when the eagle-eyed press were watching. She continued by saying “I am suddenly on a different kind of stage and everyone is watching it happen”. Some argue that this pressure put on her from the news media was one of the contributing factors leading up to her death, but who could truly know – even if we saw her life through a lens?
Several stars from Love Island have also lost battles with mental health problems, such as Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon. It’s unclear whether or not these problems stemmed from being on the show, or perhaps a case of the online abuse from the media and fans upon leaving the villa. Since the passing of these two stars, the producers of Love Island have set in place new support systems for when the islanders leave the show. With reality shows like Love Island the audiences tend to feel a strong connection to the members of the programme as they become invested in their lives after watching the show everyday for a long period of time. Due to this connection with the cast of the show they feel like they can further comment on their lives. They discuss who they like and who they hate, meaning they share both positive and negative messages online. It is worth investigating whether or not there is a clear connection between shows like Love Island and mental health issues, or whether instead it’s a result of the backlash from the media.
Five days after Flack’s death, BBC Three aired a documentary starring Stacey Dooley shining light on the goings-on of a psychiatric ward. The documentary demonstrated the social media pressure put on one patient, where her following on Instagram grew when she relapsed. It was a very fitting time to air this documentary as it demonstrates the struggles of those with mental illness, something some of us perhaps will never experience, thus educating its audiences in the process.
Bethan John, a student mental health nurse from Swansea University, believes that a law limiting the level of abuse that the media can publish could potentially prevent similar situations to what is believed to have happened to Caroline Flack. She states that “these situations created by the media are so common that we are helpless unless an effective scheme is made to hold those to account”.
She continues by stating that “the media, especially social media encourages mental health problems within the UK. Although we are more aware of the issues surrounding social media and mental illness, we see it can also encourage others to see there are no consequences to their hateful words online and their actions as they are hidden behind a screen”. This type of online trolling has been evident since the early days of social media and has negative effects on anyone who lies victim to it. Although people often raise awareness of this online issue, very little is often done to prevent it.
Would the regulation of the media through a law like ‘Caroline’s Law’ truly stop tabloid journalists publishing slanderous articles about celebrities? In my opinion, I don’t believe the media will ever really be held accountable for the wrongdoings of their celebrity bashing. It’s nearly impossible to regulate every article published online as a result of companies churning out hundreds of articles a day. Although there should definitely be stricter regulations made by the likes of IPSO to regulate slander. Perhaps the regulation done by social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram themselves isn’t enough, and maybe it would be worth creating an organization similar to OFCOM and IPSO, that specifically deals with regulating the amount of negative discourse towards celebrities or general users of social media. Whether this would decrease the mental health issues that celebrities suffer from as a result of constant bad press and abuse in the media, who knows? But it wouldn’t hurt to try.