I want you to think about your most painful, most unpleasant and distressing relationship breakup. Are you there?
OK now imagine going through that breakup, with all your raw emotion out there on display, but this time in a public forum. Say, on a stage. Or a market place. Or perhaps a television programme with a small local audience. But anyway, in public with a few hundred of your friends and acquaintances watching you, and your soon-to-be-ex-partner, going through it, minute by minute and in real time.
Are you sweating yet? Well, this isn’t some horrible imagined nightmare. This is what real life breakups are like for the Facebook generation.
For teenagers – not all of them, but many – the concept of a private life is just not really feasible any more. Their lives are lived in public: on Facebook, in texts, and to a lesser extent in email and Twitter. They are always available, and if they aren’t, it’s a deliberate choice and one that is noticeable. If you drop off the radar for even a short while – turn your phone off and hide – then people will comment.
This is all terrifically gruelling to watch as an adult, but imagine what it’s like to experience. When you’re 15 and your girlfriend has gone off with someone else, that’s bad enough. It feels like the End Of Everything. It IS, basically, the End Of Everything. But at least in the Olden Tymes, we could retreat for a bit. Hide in our rooms or with our friends. Have a bit of a play on Outlaw on your Atari. Or lie on your bed with the curtains closed listening to the Cure over and over until you had processed the feelings a little, felt a little better and more able to go out into the world. Now, there’s no escape. They’re always online; the phone is always buzzing or, even worse, not buzzing at all any more.
In the pre-Facebook days, while you were still feeling raw, you could stick with people who were on your side, Your ACTUAL friends, who would either not mention it at all (boys mainly) or in the case of the girls, maybe say something extremely comforting like – don’t worry, his new girlfriend looks like a fish. That might not sound all that comforting but at the time believe me, it was like a big cuddly blanket.
These days, you find out that your boyfriend was with another girl at a party because some snidey girl texts you to ‘helpfully’ suggest you should look at her photos. Which you do, by yourself, in your room, with a sick feeling in your stomach and the blood pumping in your ears. The camera may not lie, but it’s sometimes a bit hard to work out what the hell it’s saying.
And everyone has a camera in their pocket, all the time, to capture that ill-advised moment, and give it more prominence than it really merits. And preserve it, in public, for ever and ever amen.
There are other ways in which 21st century technology messes with young peoples’ lives too. At the beginning of a relationship, it seems to me that the constant availability via text and mobile makes everything very intense, very pressured. There’s no time to have a little think, to take things slowly, if you are texting before you go to sleep and expecting one to be there when you wake up. You have to keep committing yourself in writing, and that must have an effect on the ability of the relationship to develop naturally.
And before you point it out, I know I sound more middle aged than ever. But I promise this isn’t technophobia or even ‘in-my-day’-itis. I am genuinely worried by what I observe – that young people don’t get chance to process their emotions, properly, at a time in their lives when learning to deal with your emotions and keep them in check is so very crucial for your future well-being and happiness.
What does it do to someone’s mental health, especially if they’re someone who is already a naturally jealous person, to be able to scrutinise photographs endlessly, looking for clues? Or trying to read the subtext of flippant comments on your girlfriend’s Wall – who IS this Dan person and is that flirtation or just friendliness?
How can you deal with the pain of heartbreak when there’s not enough privacy to lick your wounds, and when the temptation is always there to just click on your ex’s Wall, and see the comments on his change of Relationship Status from In A Relationship to Single. And when, in the heat of the moment, you make a reckless and spontaneous nasty comment on Facebook, it’s not just between friends any more – it’s in front of hundreds, maybe even more than a thousand, Facebook Friends. And that’s quite a different audience, and not one that’s going to help you get over it and move on to be a balanced adult. Young people don’t get to learn from their mistakes when they have no chance to forget.
So what’s my solution for this? God I really don’t know. What do you do when you break up with someone – delete all their photos from your wall? Defriend them? What advice should we give the young folk, to navigate through the choppy waters of 21st century relationships?
I think, I guess, we should try to understand how different things are for them. Try and understand that they are facing pressures that no other generation has faced.
And try to avoid offering trite solutions – turn your Facebook off? Yeah, right.
That really would be the End of Everything.