In my other work roles, I see growing evidence of people becoming tangled up in the web of social media. Texting, sites such as Facebook and the digital haiku known as Twitter have reached every corner of the social realm. This has created opportunities. It has also created new dilemmas and risks. Extolled as a saviour by some and denigrated as social disaster by others, social media is now the new unregulated frontier - the wild west of the moral landscape.
Increasingly I find myself advising young people who are struggling to hear themselves amongst the clamour to step away from the social media. I suggest they cut back on Facebook and Twitter. The value of this advice is starting to come back with reports of being happier without the constant intrusion of all these technologies in their lives.
Paradoxically these mediums, despite their immediacy, create a fake sense of intimacy that requires careful negotiation. It is easy to get caught up in the latest who "Likes" or "Un-likes" who drama. The intensity of these dramas is heightened as this is communication in only one dimension. So much can be so easily misunderstood. A text message, Facebook entry or twitter post is only words in a line. There is no tone of voice, no body language, no clues to the intention or real motivations of the author. It can take the recipient to the middle of sentence and leave them there, confused and unsure. Interaction with this type of communication is for many young people (and adults) an emotional minefield.
On the other side of the equation, in the same work realm, many services that work with young people are finding texting is the ideal medium for sending appointment reminders and recalls to get diagnostic results. On the internet there are fantastic sites that provide support for those grabbling with mental health issues, sexual heath questions and those wanting to link with like-minded music or gaming fans.
The UK Guardian published an article about ChildLine. It reported that the number of calls from children and teenagers had risen over the past five years by just 10 per cent, but calls about loneliness had nearly tripled. For boys, the number of calls about loneliness was more than five times higher. Another UK report called The Lonely Society found that 53 per cent of 18-34-year-olds had felt depressed because of loneliness, compared with just 32 per cent of people over 55. Crucially the question of why was, in part, answered by another of the report's findings: nearly a third of young people said they spent too much time communicating online and not enough in person. Tagged the "Eleanor Rigby generation" after the Beatles song about loneliness, it seems that despite being better connected than any other period in history, many remain alone.
The love-hate relationship with social networking is reinforced by research done by David Holmes, a psychologist at Manchester Metropolitan University. He estimates that up to 40 per cent of the stuff posted on social networks is probably fabricated: "We're editing ourselves rather than actually being ourselves. Rather than having a genuine encounter, your friends become your audience, and you are someone else's audience. The exchange is thwarted in both directions. This alienates you not only from yourself but, ultimately, from those around you".
For those tangled in web or text exchanges, it is worth remembering that the more removed the medium of communication, the easier it is to set aside compassion. Reducing a person to a photo and line of text can make it far easier to bully, ignore and judge.
Terry Sarten is a local writer, musician and social worker. Feedback welcomed. firstname.lastname@example.org