A first draft of this post appeared as a "Column" in Irish Online publication "The Journal.ie" yesterday. It was written in response to a small furore that has been going on in Ireland about negative comments appearing on Twitter and Facebook (read it here)
While I am as appalled as anyone by someone deciding to harm themselves as a result of online bullying - I think there is a huge difference between harassing a private individual through a forum that is actively used by their peers; and making fun of a politician.
Coming from Australia - where the greatest gift of one of my favourite ex-Prime Ministers was to eloquently insult the opposition in the parliamentary chamber; I guess I think that politicians need to toughen up.
But insidious online bullying of an individual by their peers, that I object to. However, rather than scaring the hell out of people, let me demonstrate how the Big Bad Social Media Wolf - can actually support us through mental strife, if we are prepared to control it.
And if anyone, and I mean Anyone is feeling vulnerable as a result of what has been directed at them through Social media, they must feel they have the power to shut it out.
So here is my second draft - with added raw honesty:
" When the clock struck 12 last Monday and 2012 ended, I had more reasons than most to be glad to see the back of last year.
My family had another spell of unemployment, with the associated financial challenges, and then in March I lost a dear friend to adolescent leukemia. She had made me a hero in her school Autism Project, but I failed to save her. So I went to my first big rural Irish Wake for a teenager, who was supposed to be doing her Leaving Certificate this year.
Then in the long summer, my 15 year old autistic son began to act out. He has always been a challenging but interesting boy, but a combination of puberty and boredom in the absence of adequate school provision escalated to outbursts of aggression. My daughter by contrast enjoyed the summer as she had not had a good year in school. Both kids attend an autism school that's been taken over by the Department of Education and there are a lot of adjustments to be made. It has not been fun.
Then in September, I got a call from my sister in Australia to say my youngest sister had killed herself. I flew home to go to another funeral, another young person who should have been alive and raising her young son, but was instead going to be buried in the plot we chose in the little bush cemetery behind her house.
When I got home, my son was worse than ever. So I had to manage my grief and my longing to be with my 2 remaining sisters; with the need to get help for him. I stopped working, I stopped going to anything but the most essential meetings and I got stuck into trying to reduce his anxiety.
At one point last month I almost had to call the guards during a meltdown. My husband rushed home from work as soon as he could each night and we just focused on family.
You might expect that I have had a hard year mentally as I could have become very isolated; especially when my son was being so challenging. I have a friend who likes to drop in to us in Greystones on her way home from Dublin to Wexford and after a disastrous visit at Halloween, I had to tell her to stop. My husband’s parents tried to call in for a birthday and again, I had to show them the door.
But I am happy to say that I have never been alone in any of this. Because I am always supported and comforted by my friends on Social Media.
Rather than the Bogeyman painted by recent commentators, Social Media for me is a gift of connection. It keeps me sane.
Like a lot of parents I’m on Facebook. As a special needs parent it really helps to have a wide net to draw your friends from, so you can make sure they are the ones that “get it” when you’re talking about Autism or whatever your child has. There’s less judgement, more empathy and you get the benefit of experience when you’re having a tough day.
It is also diverting and amusing. I’m not ashamed to admit that full time stay at home parenting can be really boring. So it helps when you are house bound, to be able to log in and out chatting, sharing pictures and passing on jokes; your kids might be annoying the heck out of you but taking a quick photo and posting it up on your wall can help you laugh at their antics, rather than get depressed.
Facebook is my virtual support group, but I don’t need to get a babysitter to go to a meeting. I can keep in touch with what’s happening with regard to services, entitlements and talk through how we might cope with the challenges of this current economic situation, with people who are just like me.
Twitter on the other hand, is where I get a break from being a special needs parent.
Sure, I connect with parents and professionals concerned with disabilities, but I spend far more time interacting with people who have nothing to do with my daily life. I’ve found it a very open and inclusive place; and there’s no need to go around explaining why I don’t go to pubs or events or any of the places where “normal” people get to socialise and make new friends. From the comfort of my kitchen lap-top I can just start chatting with people who might work in advertising, politics, film making, medicine, education, the arts, farming, new media, old media, sports or travel.
There are no cliques or closed shops where someone who is “just a mum” might feel inadequate. In fact being a Mum makes you quite powerful in Social Media particularly if you blog. But that is another story.
My last 5 “@” interactions - (where you are conversing directly with another person) were with a Journalist, a handbag designer, an advertising exec', an App reviewer and a government TD who recently crossed the floor to support people like me.
It’s open, honest and often very very funny and I genuinely find myself laughing out loud all the time.
I deliberately keep my feed positive choosing to follow who I like and if anyone gets annoying, I block them.
Same goes for Facebook. Annoying posts are hidden. Offensive people are blocked and reported. If a conversation disintegrates into belligerent bickering, I unfollow or mute.
And that is the beauty of Social media: In my old life, if workplace banter became annoying or offensive, I had to tolerate it, because ignoring people can make you look like a weirdo.
But in this online community I know I always have a choice. Don’t feed the troll, don’t engage with the lech, don’t encourage or entertain the bigot, Don’t let people judge you or put you down.
If you or someone you know is experiencing online bullying - Go here to Spunout.ie for practical step by step advice on what to do.
If you are feeling like you need to talk to someone about your mental health, contact MyMind.org for low cost counselling and get things in perspective.