Social media – the good, the bad and the reason I love it 

I was having a conversation with my publisher a while back and we both agreed how much easier it is to market and sell books now that we have so many social media platforms. For example, the night my collaborative work The Guide to Good Mental Heath on the Autism Spectrum was released, I spent around 90 minutes promoting it. I sent an email to my full Autism world contact list (over 200 people), then got on Twitter and tweeted it, tagging a load of folks. I then got onto Facebook and posted about the book on all of the around 250 Autism groups I am a member of and posted it to my personal page and my Autism Books and Other Things page. I don’t know the exact analytics but I think in 90 minutes I may have communicated to over 100,000 people about the new book and how they might find it helpful.

But for me the value of social media goes way beyond the ability to market products more effectively. I was messaging my friend and fellow prolific social media user, Penny. Someone had suggested I take a holiday for some time away from my absurdly full workload and I was discussing this with Penny. I ended up realising that most of my social time – usually time connecting with friends on social media – actually forms some kind of downtime for me. My life on social media is wonderful. I don’t have to do face to face talking, I can connect for as long or little time as I want to. If somebody is being, for want of a better word, a bit of a tool, I have the options of unfollowing, unfriending or blocking them. It is true that most of my friends live in my computer and phone (and of course some of them are also face to face friends). Social media for me is almost always a safe and respectful place.

I think quite a few Autistic people find communication online easier than in the physical world. For people with prosopagnosia (‘face blindness’) – like me – it’s great because you don’t need to recognise your friends by their face. Typing allows for editing and perfecting the message to ensure it conveys what you want it to. This is much less stressful than face to face communication (although the disadvantage is that it takes longer to clear up if there is a misunderstanding). Many Autistic people find conversation with others on the spectrum on social media helps them to discover and develop their Autistic self-identity. In fact many Autistic people find their voice and power on social media. For people who are non-verbal and used typed communication, social media and blogging can be a vital way to express thoughts and opinions and connect with others. Also, for those of us who blog or write non-fiction, poetry or fiction, non-autistic people who may view our work may be far better at seeing the actual worth and quality of the writing in an online context. Sadly, an Autistic person’s physical appearance, dress style, stims and different eye contact or other perceived differences in face to face conversations can result in them being taken less seriously. Obviously this is not the way things should be. A good writer does not need to look like anything but unfortunately it is still a big challenge for some non-autistic people to see a person’s true worth past their apparent quirkiness and idiosyncrasies.

I often reflect that if we had social media when I was a teen and young adult, complete with a bunch or Autism advocacy and neurodiversity groups and maybe a role model thrown in for good measure, my life would have been much easier. However, this brings me to the other side of the coin. For some people  – Autistic and non-autistic too – social media is a battleground and a forum for horrific bullying. I have even seen this happening on occasion within the Autistic community.  People denigrating, invalidating, disrespecting and hating others and sharing all that vitriol with the wider online world. This can have some pretty dire consequences – just like face to face bullying can and often does.

Autistic young people may be more vulnerable to online attacks due to a very beautiful thing which turns into a horrible thing in the hands of a bully. That is that we as Autistics often have pure, kind hearts and cannot imagine people not being kind and thoughtful and honest like we are. We don’t feel we need to set up boundaries in our online life and identity because why would we need to? This openness and kindness can be manipulated, abused and exploited by a bully. Not all Autistic people are like this but I know a good many who are, induing myself. When I was a young person, it was a curse. Bullying and abuse were always a surprise and were always treated with me thinking ‘but why would they do that?’

The online world is often un-policed and teens and young people can be essentially suffering in silence. As the online world is now so important for education and delivering the curriculum it is horrible to think of Autistic young people being in the line of fire so to speak, each time they go online. Bullying is a complex problem but one which really needs to be addressed, especially in order to protect Autistic people.

Another difficulty which can arise with social media and online life is internet addiction. There is increasing evidence of internet and gaming addiction among young people, particularly those on the Autism spectrum.  It would seem there is fine line between constructive internet usage and problematic usage. It is clear why this is an issue for some people. If you imagine a young person really struggling – stressed, frustrated, overloaded with social contact, experiencing depression or anxiety – and their parent gives them an iPad to calm them down. It is instantly effective. The online world and games are immersive and stimulating and effectively distract the young person from the difficulties they are having,  The young person comes to associate the iPad and gaming with feeling better and so when they feel stressed or sad (or whatever) they reach for the iPad and play games and it makes them feel calmer. Sure, excessive computer gaming won’t result in a bad liver or in crime to obtain money to satisfy the ‘itch’. But what it will do is potentially impact on the young person’s school attendance, educational attainment and transition to employment. And added to that, there is a grey area: when is the young person proactively de-stressing by using gaming and when does that become problematic gaming?

This is a relatively new issue. It is not one I have a lot of answers to although it may help to teach the young person coding and game development skills – sort of ‘harm minimisation’ if you like.  Professor Temple Grandin and Dr Debra Moore write about internet and gaming addiction in their book, The Loving Push. I am far form an expert but can see there are some challenges around this into the future.

So all of that being said, I shall go post this blog on Facebook and Twitter…..

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