Last week, Media Trust, London Live and The Jack Petchey Foundation came together at ITV’s South Bank headquarters to give young Londoners a chance to discuss the effect social media has on their lives. A panel, including Newsreader Charlene White, aFriednlyArab blogger Jenna Hesham and SBTV’s Liam Tootill, offered anecdotes and advice to their fans, both in the room and via Twitter. The questions kept returning to issues of online safety – safeguarding against cyber bullying, protecting your privacy and making sure what you do online doesn’t come back to haunt you in the real world.
It’s easy to understand their concern with the continual media noise about the dangers of this new digital age for young people, whether it’s losing a job after an online rant or heartbreaking teen suicides linked to the effects of cyber bullying. I am thankful I didn’t have Twitter when I was fourteen, my family’s recollection of my “LIFE IS SO UNFAIR” teenage tantrums are mortifying enough, I wouldn’t want future employers or mother-in-laws to have such easy access to my angsty former self.
Stephen Hill from BeatBullying suggested breaking down the distinction between the online and offline worlds could help protect young people. “We try to promote the idea of having one life – we speak to young people who say in my ‘online life’ I do this and ‘when I’m offline’ I do that. Actually you should be doing the same, making the same decisions, in both.”
At first it sounds like sensible advice, there would surely be less venom if people considered the words they write to each other online as having the same impact as those said face to face. But can you really behave the same in both worlds? Singer Delilah retorted that the two spaces don’t have the same rules – “In the real world following people you don’t know is called stalking.”
It was an amusing aside but having had naked photos of her leaked online Delilah understands how the norms of these two worlds differ. In the real world, you can’t knock on your ex’s door and ask to see their recent holiday snaps. Or post your carefully curated album through the letterbox of that girl you met travelling two years ago. On Twitter it’s acceptable (or at least I hope it is) to retweet people’s positive feedback but it would be unappealing to sit at dinner recounting all your recent praise.
Jack Simcock, from digital agency Telegraph Hill, helps companies employ digital media efficiently and explained that everyone is constantly playing catch up because “the online world is changing so fast”. We don’t have time to make rules before the ground shifts again. In the place of new guidelines, it might be helpful to bring some real world values into the social media sphere but I fear if we opened the door it would actually work the other way round. If we let the line between our online and offline self blur then I might start becoming more like my online persona in real life.
I’m certain that if I brought @KirstyMorrissey along to the pub there would be a conference in the toilets with my friends informing me to leave her behind next time. And I couldn’t blame them because I’m not her biggest fan myself. She forces her unsolicited opinion on the world, is shamelessly self-promotional and has an annoying habit of imposing herself into other people’s conversations. In the real world, my two selves wouldn’t be mates but in her defence she is playing by the rules of her world, so similar to an over-sharing American, perhaps it’s not fair to judge her by normal standards.
However, people continue judge each other’s online activity by their rules of conventional offline behaviour. I know you didn’t ask for my advice, but online me doesn’t wait for requests, so if I’d been on that panel I would have said: don’t be deceived by the bright lights – social media isn’t Vegas. What happens there doesn’t always stay there. Harsh words, drunk photos and controversial opinions might be the status quo in cyber space, but the real world is only a click away and your online shadow can easily follow you back home.