Natasha Devon is on a mission to help young people stay happy, safe, and empowered on social media, because she’s experienced the darker sides of the web first-hand.
In 2016, the author, mental health campaigner and activist was named one of the ‘most prolifically trolled people in the UK’ by the BBC. Why?
She was, as she puts it, simply ‘a woman in the public eye with opinions’. She spoke to school children and university students about topics like body image and anxiety, and in 2015, she became the Department for Education’s first mental health champion for schools. Yet somehow, her online profile had caught the attention of the followers of Milo Yiannopoulos, a prominent right-wing commentator at the time.
‘It resulted in just an absolute deluge of everything, from unkind things about my appearance, right up to death threats and rape threats, and then everything in between,’ she tells Metro.co.uk’s mental health podcast, Mentally Yours.
‘It’s only now a few years later that I can look back and acknowledge how terrifying that time was. I was looking at people in the street thinking: “Was it you who sent those things? And would you actually do something? Is this just words? Or would you take this into the real world?” I was in this state of hyper-vigilance all the time.’
Back then, Natasha didn’t want to share how scared she was feeling with the people around her, because she didn’t want them to feel scared as well. She also feared her growing public profile would potentially endanger her loved ones to the same treatment.
Today though, she’s ready to talk. And her new book, Clicks – How to Be Your Best Self Online, provides a guide for young adults on how to navigate the digital world in a way that supports their mental health. Though it’s aimed at teens, there’s certainly a lesson or two most adults could learn.
On the subject of trolling, she points to research that shows people usually send awful messages for two reasons: to gain attention, or to build an online following.
‘Say, I’m a far right troll, I will target a high profile liberal person in the hope that they will share, and go “look at how awful this thing is that I have to put up with,”’ she explains.
‘They may have a following of millions, 99% of whom will agree with them and say that’s awful, but 1% might go, “actually, I feel like that person might have a point” and hop over to their account. So they’re actually building traction through targeting and trying to get a reaction from liberal commentators.
‘So the advice from the Centre for Countering Digital Hate is just don’t engage, you’re giving them what they want.’
As well as high profile individuals, marginalised groups, including women of colour and LGBTQ+ individuals (most frequently trans individuals) are most frequently subject to trolling in 2023.
People who are trolled are often told to just ignore it or leave social media, says Natasha, but it’s not that simple, because this ‘solution’ simply bullies marginalised groups out of the conversation and leads to a one-sided rhetoric.
Instead, she discusses how to show up as an ally, in a way that also enables the individual to feel safe.
‘There are two things that you can do,’ she says. ‘One is to listen with the intent to understand, really hear.
‘And then I would say, you don’t have to jump in and get involved in the conversation, particularly the trans conversation [which] has become so toxic. I know so many cis, women who are trans allies who go, “I would never speak about that online, because I just know I’m going to be targeted forever”. But what you can do is you can send a message to the person that’s been targeted, saying, “I appreciate you, I see you. I think you deserve to have rights”, so that they know that the people they’re being targeted by are not representative of everyone.’
In her book, she also discusses how to spot fake news, online activism and how to choose the best online role models.
The internet isn’t all bad, adds Natasha, who points out that today’s teens can find community and creativity on TikTok, in a way that our generation just couldn’t. While we had teen mags featuring celebs who all looked (fairly) similar and advice on how to tell if that boy at school fancied you, they’ve got discussions on everything from politics to their favorite TV show at their fingertips, often created in digestible, fun ways by people who look like them.
So, what’s all this got to do with mental health?
Natasha believes we all need to up our digital literacy to navigate the online world in a way that adds value to our lives, rather than burdens us. And in doing so, we’ll be happier for it.
‘Understanding how the technology works, and being self aware enough to acknowledge the impact that it’s having on you, is a really, really key part of this discussion,’ she says.
‘And I think it’s one that has taken a while for people to really acknowledge, because no one likes to think that they’re manipulatable. No one wants to believe that they voted a certain way, or they behaved in a certain way, or they think a certain way, because of algorithms. But technology is that powerful. I think it’s time to face up to that.’
Clicks – How to Be Your Best Self Online by Natasha Devon is out now.
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