STOCK social media cyberbully depression
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I had forgotten about it. The TEDx talk I did on December 1, 2018 in Islamabad. My first and so far, the last TED talk. The topic was so painful I cried, more than once, reading what I had written. During and at the end of the speech, I stood on the stage with my hands shaking. My voice shook many times, particularly at the end. In the last months of 2018, the suicides of two women in their early and mid-twenties devastated me. They still haunt me.

Several young women and men and women in twenties and thirties talked to me after the show. That my words resonated with them. One young woman hugged me; she had battled with depression for long. A therapist shared what a huge issue depression was among young people. A college teacher shared the same thing. I felt a tinge of reassurance. People were listening to stories of pain and depression, and were responding with empathy.

2019 rolled in. I pushed my TEDx talk to the back of my mind. Until February 11, 2021 when my nephew texted to me after watching it.

Arslan, 24, is my elder brother’s son. Our closeness remains intact despite time and distance. After finishing college, he works as a robotics automation engineer in Boston. Phew! One of the most brilliant people I know, Arslan is known in our family for his stark honesty about things, and his views are not just a comprehensive study of a topic but also something that is dreaded! Yes, the stark honesty bit. And therefore, his comment mattered to me.

Out of the blue, he texted me about my TEDx talk: “Just watched your Ted talk.” And I replied: “Where my hands shook!” He texted: “Considering this was two years ago I think you were ahead of the curve. Social media is just a bit of a joke in most adults’ heads– ‘How can Facebook cause depression.’ But if you plot it out, the depression rates and suicide rates of middle schoolers and high schoolers skyrocketed when social media apps came to smartphones. I think all your points were well thought out and laid out terrifically, with or without hands shaking.”

After I thanked him profusely, he texted that he was driving and would add some more thoughts later. He did. And he made so much sense I thought I’d quote him ad verbatim at the time in 2021 when depression and suicide are the excruciatingly painful realities of the world that we inhabit. Social media and its direct influence on the lives of young people is the hard truth most of us refuse to face.

Arslan texted:

“Usually TED talks are very informative but are sort of weird in a college professor sort of way where they try to be quirky, and they try to insert some relevant content into a digestible format. I really liked what you did with the talk, including referencing some personal anecdotes that added a depth of emotion to what was understandably a topic intrinsically filled with emotion.

Social media is something that is so far off of Pakistan’s radar that the fact that an entire TEDx talk could exist on the topic is reassuring. It’s bad enough [in a painful way] that in the talk you mentioned one of the women going to her therapist the same day. That’s the first that I’ve ever heard of a therapist inside Pakistan, to begin with. And yet I think to some the concept of depression and the concept of mental health are a pervasive western cultural washover like denim jeans. When, in reality, we have entire generations of adults that have cocooned in their own trauma and a society built around the normalisation of that. There are psychological agencies that have asserted that even spanking a child is enough to cause lasting trauma to a developing brain, and yet it’s considered an afterthought to proper disciplining. I don’t really see how you could have made such a heavy topic quirky so I’m glad to see that you didn’t try.

Mentioning the Netflix special was interesting because I imagine that if someone were to see this TED talk from around the world, especially from the US, then it would strike their interest because they probably don’t think that people around the world are consuming the same media that they are consuming. When in reality the culture that is American capitalism has invaded every aspect of the rest of the world to the extent that there is a McDonald’s on every corner, from San Francisco to Karachi, and there is a Dunkin’ Donuts, from Boston to Kabul.

One of the particularly interesting invasions is that of the western social media, which understandably for a lot of people, especially in the subcontinent, was a great way to connect communities that otherwise have a tendency to remain disconnected. I don’t think it’s smart to dismiss the rapid introduction of these Internet technologies to the subcontinent given the huge impact they have on the everyday Pakistani or everyday Indian. But just like you don’t know how a Toyota engine will function until it has spent ten years on the road, you don’t know what the introduction of these technologies mean to people’s lives until it’s perhaps too late.

Cable TV was replaced with YouTube, and there has been a laughably weak response from legislation regarding the content that can be fed to children. We have all the research that points to how mouldable a child’s brain is, and yet we do nothing to protect them from super algorithms–it’s my field after all, I’m not wearing a tin foil hat here–designed to captivate their attention by any means necessary, whether that means dangling status updates of an ex or the impossible-to-achieve body of an influencer.

And yet who wants to be the parent that chooses to keep their child disconnected while the whole world around them becomes more connected than ever? Who wants to be the parent that tells their kid that they think it’s bad to have a Snapchat when all of their classmates have one as well? And yet who thought it was a good idea to put the lives of billions of people in the hands of a team of a couple dozen Instagram engineers who are no older than I am?

Pakistan is even more interesting because while it rapidly globalises much to the discontent of its traditional boomer crowd, its youth adopts the same technologies as their American counterparts. The same problems whether it comes to the unrealistic expectations of wealth and the unrealistic expectations of the identity that you want to portray to other people online. You now have to layer this on top of the cesspool of traditional Pakistani society–whether that means the gossip of aunties or the gossip of the recent LGS [an elite Lahore school] grad.

People think the worlds are too different, but what is really the difference between the American suburban family buying themselves an expensive SUV because they want to look rich in front of all of their neighbours who have the same houses down the street versus the Pakistani family that puts more $ than the Range Rover cost into a rebadged Lexus with headlights that could shine an entire highway from Islamabad to Lahore?

All the while an older population that refuses to leave the past is juxtaposed with a youth that is modernising as part of the natural progression of a young country. The same youth that are fed to the same algorithms that dictate trends everywhere else.”

Mehr Tarar, Special to Gulf News-1592296810288