Mon, 15 May 2023 at 5:46 pm BST
“For families who feel that they are held hostage by the perils of the online world, for parents who wish they could still communicate with their teenagers… and for young people who have become addicted to social media and its darker sides.”
We are used to gushing tributes from actors accepting accolades, but not many as poignant as Kate Winslet’s in accepting her Bafta for I Am Ruth, the story of a mother and daughter navigating the perils of the online world.
I know all too well how Winslet feels: with a span of 20 years between our eldest and youngest five children, we’ve had to adjust pretty rapidly to unprecedented risks and dangers, even in the “age of innocence” before social media. Even before mobile phones were ubiquitous.
Such as… the time we were on holiday in rural Ireland. I gave our four pre-teens a packed lunch, told them to stick together and avoid water and come home when they’d had enough. Only three returned. We had an anxious few hours, not helped by the postmaster’s doom-laden: “No: not safe at all. A lassie went missing in Ireland… ooh, I’d say about 30 years ago.”
Admittedly we were both more liberal and at the same time stricter than other parents, in different ways: restricting TV-viewing to Sundays, after dark, if we remembered. The warnings to our older four were all of strangers in parks or crossing the road, never social media. It didn’t exist. Their grandmother gave them a board game called “Stranger Danger” and taught them what we all taught children, then: don’t accept lifts or sweets.
The changes started in their teens. Some seemed positive. Our daughter suffered such severe mental illness that for a while she couldn’t leave the house: being online was the only social contact she had. It was arguably a lifeline… except for uncharted hazards.
She wanted to stay with her new “boyfriend”, having so far dated exclusively on the internet. It transpired he was more than twice her age, with a conviction for GBS and having been denied access to any of his children.
Among the hysterical reactions from all my friends, my mother (in her late 80s) gave the only sensible advice. I asked if we should invite him to our house: “Of course. What else can you do?”
The next visited from Jamaica, then cheated on her the moment he arrived.
Our youngest, by contrast, has had her own telephone since she was in single figures. Yet she was still several years behind her peers. At one point, she was the only one still using the school call-box.
I’m not sure we would have kept up without her four older siblings.
We experienced the fall-out from friendships and bullying when one of our daughters was 13. Her relationship with a best friend went through a difficult time when jealousy sparked a bullying campaign. Fortunately the head spotted it quickly, dealt with it firmly and they were able to make up before moving on to different senior schools.
Still, social media came knocking when the cohort of girls kept in frequent contact on social media. Soon the bullying resumed, this time with no adults to bear witness to it. But our daughter was fortunate: whereas in person her friend incited boys against her, this online and exclusively-female group was more sensitive and all told the perpetrator to back off.
Our youngest and her friend continued to confide secrets they never told anyone else… as girls always have since the dawn of time, but using media no previous generation had grown up with, or could understand. And this is where it all went wrong.
One dreadful evening, this friend’s mother contacted our daughter with tragic news: her best friend had been diagnosed with cancer. She didn’t want anyone else to know, so she must please keep it to herself.
Our daughter did her best to support her friend, calling her several times a day and sometimes in the middle of the night. She received messages from a different time zone: her friend was now in a specialist clinic in the US, where her family had taken her for treatment. Her mother wrote to our daughter too.
The secret was a terrible burden. It was compromising her sleep, her work and worst of all her mental health, all while trying to fit in with a new school, make new friends and board away from home. But her friend’s mother remained adamant: it was extremely important she didn’t share it with anyone at all. Not even us, her family.
Eventually, the poor child cracked. Over Christmas, her older sister spotted something amiss and, in floods of tears and terror at letting her friend and her friend’s mother down, our daughter shared the news that her friend was dying.
Her sister urged, and eventually persuaded her to let us know. Which is how it came out.
It was all complete fiction. With considerable imagination and skill, her best friend had not only invented the story but impersonated her own mother as well.
All three head teachers, of both the new schools and the old, had to be involved, as well as the police. Our daughter was assured support would be forthcoming for her friend, but, cruelly, was never allowed to know the outcome… nor given any herself. She never heard anything from (or about) her friend again.
This is a true story, but it’s far from unique. Our daughter got through it. Many don’t.
Of course parents have always had to look out for their children. Run over, smitten with illness, sometimes hungry or cold: there was no golden age when childhood held no risks. Not even when I was a child.
But social media has surely stretched the goal posts. Parents have never had to be quite so nimble-footed, or learn so much, so fast. The risks to children’s mental health, at their own hands, are even more frightening. I Am Ruth is a very welcome and necessary addition to the debate.
Anne Atkins is a novelist, writer and broadcaster