Look down: the benefits of online friendships

So, there’s a guy called Gary Turk who’s made what is being hailed as a “life changing” video. Look Up is about the dangers of being constantly attached to our devices and the evils of social media and is being widely shared, apparently without a shred of irony, all over Facebook and Twitter.

I have a number of problems with this video, not least that I find it sanctimonious and illustrative of a kind of moral panic about technology. 3o years ago people worried about the amount of time kids like me spent watching television, despite the existence of just four channels, while television is now often seen as less immersive, and therefore less dangerous, than video games or social media. In the 18th century novels first became a common form of text and  were considered potentially ruinous to the young mind by concerned parents – the same kind of concerned parents who would these days weep with joy to see a young adult novel in their offspring’s hands. (There’s a fun history of moral panics about media and technology, going right back to 15th century worries about whether the printing press would spell the end of proper books, online here.)

Gary is very earnest. He wants us to put down our phones and tablets and interact, really interact, with people face to face. He’s worried that his online friends aren’t his real friends, that social media give us what he sees as a false connectedness which is actual a form of social isolation. Gary is concerned by the silence in commuter carriages, apparently unaware that prior to the iPad and the smartphone there was a form of technology used for discouraging conversation known as the “broadsheet newspaper”. It is offline activities – like exercising  or painting a picture – which in Gary’s  view are authentic, just like it is offline relationships which really matter. “Just one real connection is all it can take”, he tells us, to “live life the real way”.

The video obviously has wide appeal, yet to some with disabilities its denigration of online connections comes across as offensive. What if you are housebound, lonely, genuinely isolated? I’m going to take a guess that Gary probably has a job, and a family or perhaps housemates. He may find the online world a sad one, but I doubt he knows the true isolation of the person living alone who cannot get out and expects no visitors other than a weekly visit from a healthcare professional. In my view, running down our friendships as false shows a lack of understanding of what friendship really means. Instead of a moral panic about what social media takes away from us, how about a celebration of how much it has changed the lives of isolated people for the better?

And so I’ve recorded a rebuttal to Look Up. Look Down is my first attempt at video content and it’s not as swish as Gary’s because basically my setup was just me, my iPhone and a pile of books to try to stop my phone falling over. But, like Look Up, Look Down is in verse, and tries to encapsulate the benefits of social media for people with mental health conditions (it also gives you a flavour of what I’m like in person  – I thought it was time to give that a go!).

About purplepersuasion

40 something service user, activist, writer and mother living with bipolar disorder. Proud winner of the Mark Hanson Prize for Digital Media at the Mind Media Awards #VMGMindAwards
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Look down: the benefits of online friendships

  1. brokenbutbeingrepaired says:

    I wont be watching the video telling me how wrong I am to access support, online, but just watched look down, which is so relatable .So, thank you for sharing it with us.

    Fact is, without the online world….I`d be totally alone other than in therapy (the NHS wont treat me because of D.I.D diagnosis which is a whole other story). I have been able to access support and knowledge about D.I.D from people via my blog and twitter who I would never meet “in real life”. I also have made some “real” friends via the online world; one who spent around an hour speaking with [one of] me during a particularly crisis laden time a couple of months back.

    In my real world world, I know no-one safe other than my therapists and I know the isolation all too well of getting through days, weeks, months without any human connection at all.

    The other thing is, being able to offer some support to others online is the only way I can do it and it helps me to think that maybe I`ve helped another person get through a moment through blogs/twitter. In the outside world, there is no social group or community for me right now (or ever?), so I will be eternally grateful for people in the online world showing me humanity which I`ve missed in the outside world.

    Oops, have gone on a bit of a rant above..sorry.

    Really just wanted to say thank you and well done for sharing your thoughts so eloquently on the Vlog.


    • So glad you enjoyed it, this post was a challenge for me, both in trying out video and writing in rhyme so it’s great to know you related to it. I too feel I can offer more to people in return online right now. That’s not always been the case, when I was well I working in “helping professions”, but I do hope and believe the support I give to others online makes a difference x

  2. Reblogged this on A is for Anxiety and commented:
    social media, not good or bad, it’s what you do with it that counts.

  3. Ron says:

    “What if you are housebound, lonely, genuinely isolated? ”

    I am, and while I’ve not seen the video I don’t doubt that it would infuriate me, too, so is probably best avoided – anger just makes me ill.

    I’m also terminally ill,** and were it not for the friends I’ve made online – mainly on Twitter. – I am in no doubt that I would have ended my life by now.

    **Details in the Footnote to this post if anyone is interested

    The reason I haven’t is that online friends have, over the years, proven more reliable and suppportive, on the whole, than those who, IRL, tell me they’re friends yet, too often, clearly have no real understanding of what it means to be me. And there’s the fact that some online – perhaps all – (naturally enough I know some better than others), would be devastated were I to take my own life, and ending my misery only to cause more misery for others seems a poor trade-off.

    I fear that might not always be the case – things have recently taken a severe turn for the worse – but for now, at least, my resolution is holding despite the appalling pain that even morphine barely blunts.

    • Hi Ron, thanks for your input. I think it’s true that if people don’t really have online friends then they don’t really “get” how important those friendships can be. Just like you, I’ve had days where it was my online support network that got me through. I’ll be checking out your blog. Nice to have met you 🙂

  4. Sue says:

    Well done- a much needed response on this subject!

  5. Nina says:


    I hadn’t seen the other video, so I went and saw it too. I couldn’t agree with your assessment more. Sanctimonious is the word that sprung to my mind as well when I listened to it, though he probably meant well. .

    At one point, he talked about presenting an image. If he thinks he doesn’t do this in “real” life then he’s deluded. IMHO, suddenly not being able to do this is one of the things that makes us retreat when we’re ill. We lose the ability to represent ourselves to the world. It’s why you don’t want to call friends or talk to people in the street. There’s no buffer anymore, and everything hurts. Everything grazes and scrapes. Technology provides that buffer, as if it was a prosthetic for the psyche.

    In comparison I thought your poem was fantastic, and I identified so much with the things you said. It flowed really well too – you’re a great writer.

    Thank you.

    • Aw, thanks Nina! Yes, I found the idea that we are “real” offline and “our true selves” then all that says is something about the way he chooses to use social media. For me as a person with a sometimes very disabling condition, like you my online life is sometimes the ONLY place I can be real and authentic!

  6. I do so agree with you particularly with regard to mental health. When I am low I can’t face going out and often keep off Facebook too but I have friends I can email and I use the blogging sites to read up other blogs about depression and bi-polar which helps me feel less alone. I then venture carefully on to Facebook and eventually begin to interact with people. Years ago those with depression were stuck indoors with no-one to talk to – most people avoid us and many find mental illness scary. I shall look forward to reading Look Down. Well done for bringing this to our attention. Stay well and positive.

    • Thanks, you too. Yes, social media has its downsides, but agree totally that it has been liberating and supportive for those of us who are more or less housebound. Something to celebrate, in my view!

  7. Great post and totally on the money.

    I can’t help but think it also exhibits another kind of abelism – it assumes that interacting on public transport, with strangers, with acquaintances is an easy and enjoyable thing for everyone to do. Headphones on, eyes glued on phone, is sometimes the only way I can make it home on bad days.

    I really thought we were past the moral panic around social media. I don’t think there’s been a single study that has in any way supported these rather – as you point out – archaic claims.

    • Alex Dale says:

      “I can’t help but think it also exhibits another kind of abelism – it assumes that interacting on public transport, with strangers, with acquaintances is an easy and enjoyable thing for everyone to do. Headphones on, eyes glued on phone, is sometimes the only way I can make it home on bad days.”

      Fully agree with this.

      IMO, online social interactions can be very fulfilling and a source of comfort. It comes without all the conceited airs and graces, and potential awkwardness vs rejection vs deciphering body language and all that (sometimes people just don’t understand it can be painful) – and to add – writing, reading, and learning are (let’s not forget) 3 things we can still engage in to a huge extent online and for free. I’m an advocate of online networking – without the support of a mental health forum I use I would be lost.

  8. simonfalk28 says:

    Thanks for this post. It is up to us to ensure that our online friendships are mutually life-giving. There is a place for them. I have found myself asking a question lately: if some of the bloggers that I connect with more regularly were physically here would I engage with them in that way? Yes, I would. We connect online to bridge the distance. Some days, and with some people, we do this better than others.

  9. Liz BUITRAGO says:

    great job!! I started watching the look up video but it just made me mad and I stopped in the middle of it.
    When I was 14 I was living with my family, an alcoholic father, a mother who laughed everytime I said I felt depressed (she was struggling with her own depression herself) and I remember feeling relieved when I met people online. I was living in Colombia back then, and I met a wonderful spanish girl and we’d talk for hours. I’ve been living in France for 6 years now, I decided to get away from my dysfunctionnal family. My IRL friends from Colombia? gone. My spanish friend? we still talk online every week and meet everytime we can (which is not often). If she hadn’t been there I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to remain strong in such a difficult environement.
    Real life kept telling me I was just a spoiled girl trying to get attention, on the Internet I’ve found people like you, struggling like me, making me realize that I’m not alone in this big world.
    Last year I went to a bad episode of depression, spent months in bed without eating or going out, just feeling miserable. My IRL friends?? they told me they had things to do, my spanish friend?? she immediately bought an airplane ticket and came to see me.
    Ooops I’m sorry this is too long, I’ll just add that I check your blog everyday and that even if we don’t talk, I save a moment of my day, everyday, wishing you are holding up and wishing you’ll get through this.

  10. whythispath says:

    Thank you for this. I am so grateful for my online community, and you said it so well. I was one who bought into the Look Up video and harbored the guilt I feel when I am connecting with my friends and family online. Yes, perhaps I do need to get out a bit more, but I have comfort here, and when I check out (aka: look up) then I miss out on a number of things happening to people who have come to mean a great deal to me, for example, you. If one day you suddenly weren’t here for me to turn to, to check in with when I happen to be online, then I would feel a sense of loss and perhaps worry. I disappear all the time, and that is just who I am. some days I am looking up and some days I am looking down, and what ever I choose to do I am okay with that. That video had me looking around every corner wondering if my “life partner” was going to bump into me,, and I cannot live my life thinking like that. There are pros and cons for both avenues, but I am grateful to see that I do not need to harbor guilt for doing what I do. I’m really glad to have my online friendships and I am very glad I happened upon this blog today at this moment…. I bumped into you the same way that man bumped into that girl in the street. My life is better for finding you and it is a delightful thought that when I travel to England I would have a kindred spirit there. Powerful message, darling. And, if you ever visit California, you have a cup of tea waiting for you in my home. (I feel a disclaimer is necessary here, I don’t claim to be the person you were referring to, however, I feel it is a universal concept that still applies. You not only have one person, you likely have several.)

  11. Thanks for pointing this POV. While I do have a slew of mental health issues of my own, I have been far more “functional” lately, so my first instinct was to agree with the OP – but more out of personal guilt than anything else. I’m one of those ones where checking my phone approaches being a full-blown compulsion. I was also tired of having to pretend. When I post via this account and on my blog, I can be 100% authentic. Like you said, it is a lifeline and it is a necessary one for me.

    I have a handful of close friends, near and far, that I have “met” through the internet. Sure, some I haven’t met in person, but that doesn’t make me care for them any less. I also do turn to my phone as a necessary and helpful distraction when I am in situations where I might panic. Hell, it even has apps that help slow down my breathing and identify thought distortions. It is essentially like carrying a therapist in my pocket. Without the co-pays.

  12. Edward Rice says:

    Ironically I never would have seen this video if I hadn’t been on Facebook (or read this post I guess).

    Gary Turk’s prose sounds good, but if you scratch the surface you find he has little to say. He general premise, that social media isolates people rather than brings them together, doesn’t seem to be based on anything at all. If I want to meet a friend, and I message him on Facebook, is that more removed than a Skype call? What about a Skype call vs a traditional call? What about post? A telegram?

    Is the fact that I met my boyfriend through the internet vs bumping into him in the street inherently inferior? Does our relationship mean less? Are you getting tired of the rhetorical questions yet?

    I’m sure if you looked at the stats (he’s blocked them) you would find that this video is popular with 13-18 year olds. I don’t think it would be stretch to imagine an impressionable young person might find this “inspirational”.

    In the end, this video is just a fad. When did you last hear anyone talk about Kony? Or Gangnam Style? Or Rebecca Black? The world will move on, and Mr Turk will have made his Adsense revenue.

    Ranting aside, thanks for your rebuttal. It’s nice to hear something meaningful.

  13. manyofus1980 says:

    Reblogged this on Many of us's blog and commented:
    An awesome post you all should read!

  14. Pingback: The Swiss Roll Days– coming back from the bad times | Mental health jukebox

  15. Pingback: Look down: the benefits of online friendships | jocclepossum

  16. Online friendships and blogs is what has helped me through the last 2 years and continues to help me daily. It means that on days when I can’t go out I can still connect with other people and draw inspiration from them.
    I enjoyed your poem greatly. Thank you for sharing this blog.

  17. Thank you for writing this and for posting your moving and incredibly honest video poem, which I could relate to. As someone who suffers from severe depression, which means I can’t leave my home sometimes, my online friendships have been my lifeline. I watched the Look Up video and I agree that if you use social networks purely as a means of self-promotion without any honesty about your real life or emotions (as Gary seems to believe everybody does) then of course social networking will make you feel lonely. However, like you, in real life I dread the question ‘How are you?’ because people in real life don’t usually want an honest answer. I hate lying so I usually say ‘ok’, which gets me some strange looks. But on twitter if one of my friends asks me ‘How are you?’ I know they are asking because they genuinely care and want an honest answer. I can be my real, flawed, authentic self with my online friends in a way that I rarely can in real life. Thank you again for sharing this.

  18. Di Castle says:

    This is classic behaviour. If a bipolar person says ‘fine’ in answer to that question it is a sign things are not right. So many people don’t understand mental illness and I just don’t bother with them these days.

  19. blackaudrey says:

    Hi Charotte, I’ve just found your blog. Your video response to Mr Turk is fantastic and sums up what a lifeline the internet can be to those of us dealing with mental health difficulties. So many people think that spending too much time online is insular and unhealthy but I’ve made some of my best friends that way and still haven’t met all of them in real life! Anyway, I’m preaching to the converted. I look forward to reading more. Take care.

  20. Reblogged this on Ilene Locke and commented:
    An eloquent way of saying that shut-ins are people too. I rate this highly.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s