Sunday, 25 June 2017

A pervasive persuasion: the need to protect our children in a digital age

Last Sunday was Father’s Day here in the UK. It is day used to celebrate Fathers that has its origins in the Middle Ages, when it was then celebrated in March. About 100 years ago many countries, including the UK adopted the current June date, made popular in the US.  For the first time in many years I celebrated the day with just W and myself at the House in Scotland. However, the children had sent gifts and cards, one of which was a rather splendid cockerel. Carved out of wood, with bicycle cogs for tail feathers and comb and bicycle chains for wings. These were all parts from my son-in-law Stewart’s bike, a bike that had travelled some 2500 miles in the last 12 months. The cockerel is a thing of beauty, and Stewart was the surprising artist!

Of course these days geographical distance is not a problem for staying in touch with others, and on Father’s Day I was able to Skype, Facetime and speak over the phone with family. I could also do all of this on my new phone, an iPhone, the first one I had ever owned. It was a great to discover that I could replicate everything I had been doing on my iPad on this phone. So I got it set up with emails, Twitter, Skype and so on and all was well. That is until one of my friends persuaded me to down load WhatsApp – an encrypted messaging service. I had never used it before and didn’t know that I would use it – but I was persuaded to get the app.

What I also discovered was that apart from using the phone as set up in the shop everything else, including downloading apps required an Apple ID and Password. Whilst I had one of these from years ago when I invested a great deal of time uploading my entire CD collection onto iTunes, I hadn’t used it for years. And as soon as I did I realised why. Suddenly I was up in the cloud, with demands for access codes to all my devices and generally getting twisted into knots of security and instructions and all for something I didn’t really want in the first place. Eventually it was installed and I sent out a WhatsApp message to my WhatsApp contacts – but I’ve heard nothing since.

I think I must be missing something as whilst Facebook (WhatsApp’s parent company) remains the most widely used social media service, WhatsApp is said to be becoming one of the most popular ways people both discover and discuss news. I’m from that generation that still goes to the BBC for my news, albeit more often than not, to BBC on-line. It’s amazing to note that it was only 50 years ago, in the June of 1967, that the Beatles performed ‘All you need is Love’ live on the BBC’s first live global broadcast! Many young people today shun the BBC (as being untrustworthy and biased in their reporting), preferring to use other services like WhatsApp to hear the news.

It’s perhaps easy to understand why. WhatsApp uses an end-to-end encryption approach which means messages can only be seen by the senders and recipients – crucial in countries where the political regimes monitor social media and where critical voices are often dealt with harshly. Social media increasingly gives those without a voice an opportunity to be heard, to articulate a point of view in ways unthinkable just a few years ago. We only have to look at the way the Labour Party very successfully harnessed social media in the recent general election to see how large numbers of the population can be reached, and given an opportunity to have their voice heard.

There are risks of course. In the UK, freedom of expression and the protection of our privacy over the internet is guaranteed by law. Some social media users abuse these rights and ‘troll’ others (sending menacing and or upsetting messages) and sometimes to such an extent that it can cause mental health problems and in some extreme cases, people ending their life through suicide. Children and young people are particularly vulnerable. The NSPCC reported that one in five 8 to 11 year olds and seven in ten 12 to 15 year olds has a social media profile. 1 in 4 children have reported experiencing something upsetting on a social networking site, and 1 in 3 children have been a victim of cyberbullying.

There were some 5653 child sex crimes committed against children in 2016/17 that had an on-line element. 13 was the most common age of the targeted children, and nearly 100 offences were committed against children 10 years and under. The Internet Watch Foundation, established in 1996, and now an independent international organisation which receives, assesses, and traces public complaints about on-line child sexual abuse content found over 57000 web sites containing child sexual abuse images. They access a webpage every 5 minutes, every 9 mins that webpage shows a child being sexually abused. In 1996, the UK hosted 18% of the world’s known online child sexual abuse material. Thanks to their work, and the commitment of major internet service providers, today the UK hosts just 0.2%. 

So I worry about encrypted services such as WhatsApp. It has some 1 billion users worldwide, and WhatsApp does have an image sharing facility. It is to be remembered that the Westminster bridge terror attacker, Khalid Masood, sent a WhatsApp message minutes before he attacked, an encrypted message that to this day cannot be accessed by the police and intelligence services. I’ve removed the WhatsApp application from my phone, a slightly puny protest I know, but I am from the generation that still goes to the BBC to learn about what’s happening and what’s up, not WhatsApp. 

Sunday, 18 June 2017

A quiet contemplation of the importance of hopes and dreams

Two of my favourite drinks couldn’t be more different. Lagavulin is a fine malt whisky from the Islay region of Scotland. It has an intense peaty smokey rich taste that is mellow and powerful on the nose and tongue. I’ve yet to taste the 37 year old, but the 16 year old and double matured malts are very, very good. My other favourite drink is the ‘widow champagne’, Veuve Clicquot, a champagne that dances on the tongue. Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, to give her full name, became a widow at the age of just 27. She took over her husband’s winemaking business and turned the ‘widow champagne’ into one of the worlds most successful ‘maisons de champagne’.

These are not drinks to be hurried in their drinking. If you want a flirty, quick fun drink, then maybe stick to pouring a glass or 2 of blended whisky or prosecco. Lagavulin and Veuve Clicquot need time, the right place and the right frame of mind to appreciate their flavours and the feelings that are evoked as each is sipped. They are drinks to contemplate with. They are drinks that can be shared with others in silence. No words needed, the quiet is welcomed, and it’s where dreams and thoughts can be shared in togetherness.

Difficult to do in our busy lives – which I guess is why we have blended whisky and prosecco. As regular readers of this blog will know, my life recently has not been quite as busy as it once was. I have lots more time in my waking day at present. Indeed, last week at my therapy session I was offered and accepted an acupuncture session. Laying on the couch, I’m sure that as every needle was inserted my mind and body slowed down a little further. When I was finally left alone, I felt so relaxed and at peace, and it was a feeling difficult to describe in words. It was a different type of contemplation time.

This experience was in absolute and total contrast to my feelings on waking up on Thursday morning to the news of the Grenfell fire in London. Again my feelings were also difficult to put into words. The absolute devastating impact of the fire on all those involved was and remains almost too much to comprehend. The loss of life, the injuries, all those who have now lost their homes, histories, and way of life, and their dreams of a future. Each of their personal and shared experiences I find so hard to understand and can’t even begin to know what such a loss must feel like. I watched with shame and hurt the accusations and recriminations so loudly being made, but I think I understood those who expressed their anger, hopelessness and frustration at what had happened. 

I watched with pride the magnificent response being made by communities around the tower block, and I am sure the authorities will do all that they can to find people new homes and provide financial support. Clearly many people, victims, professionals, and the communities they come from will need help in coming to terms with what has happened. And last week, as I sat on my mindfulness beach, I felt both impotent and sad that there was so little I could do to help those impacted by this tragedy. 

I have reached out in my thoughts and prayers, and instead of buying more Veuve Clicquot this week, I have sent the money to the Grenfell Fire relief fund – but this didn’t feel like much of a response to me. It felt very inadequate compared to the massive support I have received from friends and family over my recent mental health problems. Maybe there isn’t more I can do right now. I can keep those affected in my thoughts and prayers, and hope that in the future they will find the strength and have the opportunities to rebuild their dreams and lives. 

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Authenticity, passion and a ‘thing about chickens’

My fellow blogger Lynn reminded us in one of her recent tweets of Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical sociology and the way we choose to present our self – that is a sense of who one might be, often shaped by the time, place, and audience. In Goffman’s world, where the actor succeeds, the audience will view the actor as they might want to be viewed. Usually, such performances are carefully constructed, practiced and used with self-confidence. It is an approach, that in my professional life, I am very familiar and comfortable with.

I was reminded of this last week when a young man called Daniel, bounded up to me and smiling broadly said ‘Professor, good to see you’. He said I probably wouldn’t remember him, but he was one of my former students and that he had graduated in 2013 and was now working as a Charge Nurse in a local emergency care service. Now over the 10 years I was Dean of the School at the University, some 7000 nursing students passed through the School. Remembering individuals tended to happen only where someone had done something outstanding, or the reverse, they did something unprofessional that brought them to my attention.

However, Daniel had a very clear memory of me during his time at the University. He recalled that I always wore black, nobody had ever seen me in anything else, I had clogs of different colours which created urban myths amongst the students as to whether specific colours related to my mood or had some other significance, and that I had a ‘thing about chickens’. However the memory that struck a chord with me was his recollection of his very first day at University. On that first day I would always meet all the students to welcome them to the University and to their taking the first steps on their chosen professional journey.

Essentially I was performing on my stage. I talked about the possibilities and opportunities that lay in front of them; I talked about a number of people who had shaped my view of the world (Carl Rogers, unconditional positive regard for others; Virginia Henderson, understanding the nature of intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships – self, and self in relation to others; and Michel Foucault, the importance of both revealing and understanding the silenced voice). I had delivered various versions of this welcome speech many times, but for Daniel it was the first time. He told me how his memory was one shaped by feeling inspired, motivated, and reassured that he had made the right decision in coming to the School. He told me that his group thought I was authentic and passionate about enabling others to create a future for themselves. After 7 years of study and practice it was warming that he still retained such a positive memory of his first day at the University.

I met Daniel at a husting event leading up to the recent the general election. I had been supporting my friend and colleague Jane who was standing for the first time as a parliamentary candidate for the Conservatives. In the main my support and help involved undertaking policy analysis, trying to make what was a dreadful election manifesto more accessible, palatable and applicable to members of her community, developing daily messages and so on. All this work was undertaken in the context of Jane’s strong belief in being authentic and true to herself, even where this might give rise to challenges and tensions between her beliefs and what was set out in the Conservative manifesto – the official line! Although difficult at times to negotiate these tensions, it was relatively easy for me, from a distance to provide advice, possible comments and responses. 

The husting event was clearly different, and my friend would be very much on the stage. It was a bruising and hostile audience, largely made up of vocal and challenging Labour supporters. My friend did well in the face of much hostility. As a a performance it wasn’t one that was carefully constructed, practiced and used with self-confidence, but it was truly authentic and every response delivered with passion, and for me that what was important. Unfortunately, Jane did not get elected as the MP, but then the area hadn’t elected a Conservative MP for some 62 years – and against the national picture, she did double the votes, gaining nearly 30% of the vote and came a very respectful second. Staying true to one's self was and is important. Despite the disappointment I hope that with time, like Daniel, she holds some good memories of the opportunity she created. It was one she can be proud of and build authentically on, for the future.  

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Time for Bed, Zebedee said: asleep on the Magic Roundabout

Now my new car is full of digital marvels. It parks itself, it maintains a safe distance from cars around it, displays incoming emails, texts and even telephone message. Everything is voice activated and at night it lights up like a space ship. One of the things it does is to warn you when you stray over the white line in the middle of the road. The steering wheel tugs you back into lane, a series of warning beeps are sounded and it is both irritating and reassuring. If you happen to wander over the white line more than half a dozen times in quick succession – something difficult to avoid on the narrow country lanes up here in Scotland, the car tells me to pull over and take some rest!

Being told to take a nap by a car is one thing, when your body tells you it needs to sleep that is a different thing altogether. Some 15 days into my antidepressant therapy course, most of the early side effects (dizziness, nausea and so on) have faded. The one side effect that has remained has been an almost overwhelming need to lay down and sleep. I have never slept so much in any one day as I have over the past 15 days. It is strange, as I don’t feel constantly tired, but still find myself closing my eyes and drifting off. I am becoming like Cello, who can doze all day if not out running on the beach or in the woods.

Although my excess sleeping is a side effect of the medication, deep sleep therapy was once a very popular treatment for mental health problems, particularly during the 1930s and 1940s and then again during the 1950s and 1960s when in the UK it was used alongside ECT and medication. At that time ECT was a rather crude intervention and often terrified those being given it.  Using sleep therapy ECT could be administered and the patients seldom remembered this. Thankfully the practice largely fell into disuse as other more effective treatments were developed.

Imposed sleep is not without its risks. My PhD supervisor, the late and great Professor Joel Richman developed sepsis resulting in a 5 month stay in hospital, 7 weeks of which were spent in an induced coma in ICU. When he eventually ‘awoke’ he was for some time extremely paranoid, delusional, depressed and angry, often lashing out at those he loved and cherished. Being the great medial sociologist he was, Joel wrote up his experiences in a wonderful paper called Coming out of ICU Crazy: Dreams of Affliction – worth a read if you can gain access to it.

Anyway, and in a lighter vein, in-between naps, I did look at what was being said about sleep last week. It seems that many people are ‘under-sleeping’ by 60 mins every night, which is the equivalent of whole night’s sleep over a week (the average healthy sleep period is 7.7 hours a night). The Royal Society for Public Health found that people believed getting enough sleep was the 2nd most important activity for keeping themselves healthy – something that was behind not smoking, but in front of getting their 5-a-day, exercise and not drinking too much alcohol. They noted that a lack of sleep has resulted in 30% of people becoming depressed or stressed. The cause of not getting enough sleep can be complex and will often reflect life choices such as long commutes, parenting and socialising (late nights out). 

Somewhat ironically I guess, good sleep can be the result of people engaging in other healthy behaviours – those who eat healthily and get plenty of physical exercise often sleep better – and getting better sleep will often mean people are more likely to stick to those healthy behaviours. I’m sure my excess sleeping will begin to fade just as the other side effects have done – but as my friend and fellow blogger June told me last week, ‘keep taking the tablets’, which I fully intend to do. And finally if Cello could speak, I am sure he would say, ‘sleeping doesn’t make your dreams come true, waking up does’. So now this weeks blog has been posted, he and I are off out to explore the early morning sights and sounds of our beach.