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Natasha Devon MBE: Glitch’s new Ambassador!

Natasha Devon, a writer and mental health and body image campaigner, is someone who spends her time speaking to the younger generation about these issues — she’s working hard to break the bias before it’s too late. Add to that an upcoming novel that explores toxic friendship, aptly named ‘Toxic’.

We’re so excited to bring Natasha on board as a Glitch Ambassador, partnering with her to achieve our goal of ending online abuse! We spoke to Natasha about her activism and what ‘breaking the bias’ means to her.

Why is ending online abuse so important to you and your work?

I’m a mental health campaigner, and any form of bullying (whether online or otherwise) can have a detrimental impact — In fact, evidence shows it can increase your chances of developing symptoms of depression by 50%. I also discovered very early on in my career that it’s impossible to separate mental health from social justice. So many mental health issues are structural and/or environmental rather than individual and that’s why we see these distinct patterns in the way mental illness manifests in different demographics. For example, racialised (non-white) people are less likely to see a positive outcome from mental health treatment. LGBTQ people are at higher risk of self-harm and suicide. Refugees are more likely to experience psychosis as a result of trauma. Women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression and also have higher rates of self-harm. Working towards equality is therefore a really important aspect of mental health activism. Abuse online disproportionately impacts those who are already discriminated against in broader society and is used to silence the voices which need to be heard.

What has your experience (if any) of online abuse — or conversely online safety — been?

I’ve experienced the full spectrum of online abuse, from people making hurtful remarks about how I look, to racist and misogynist posts, to sustained harassment, death and rape threats. In only the most extreme cases have the social media companies intervened and only one was considered serious enough for the police to get involved. In the cases where the platforms themselves took action, they just removed the account. Nothing stopped that person from just setting up another profile in order to continue their harassment and in several cases I suspect that’s exactly what they did. I’m at a stage now where I just have really good filters so I don’t have to see most of it and on the odd occasion I do I simply try my best to ignore it. It’s far from ideal. We need to have a conversation about what accountability looks like in these instances, though. I don’t want the people who have perpetrated online abuse towards me piled on or doxed, or to lose their jobs, or be put in prison, I want them to genuinely understand the consequences of their actions and to not do it again. I also would want them to be ‘on the radar’ of the authorities in case the threatening online behaviour transitions into offline harm.

Your upcoming novel, Toxic, explores a young friendship between your two main characters: Llewella and Aretha. Tell us a bit about that…

Toxic is about a friendship which is…well, Toxic. But it is also about the magnificent aspects of female friendship, too. My main character Llewella is surrounded by this incredible sisterhood who help her overcome the challenges she faces. I didn’t want it to be an ‘aren’t women awful?’ book, but I did want to try and portray a toxic female relationship realistically, because it’s something that affects so many people.

Aretha behaves in terrible ways but I hope the reader will understand that there are good reasons why she is the way she is. She is desperate for fame and sees becoming an influencer as a quick route to achieving her goal. She’s so used to portraying herself a certain way online, she has about a thousand different masks she wears and you’re never quite sure which one is the ‘real’ her.

A theme which also emerged as I was writing was the nuanced nature of privilege. I think this is a conversation that’s been hugely over-simplified online, in a really unhelpful way. Both Llewella and Aretha are mixed with white mums and dads of colour, but Aretha has darker skin and curlier hair. Aretha resents Llewella for being mixed in a way which is considered more desirable and that’s where part of the jealousy and toxicity in their friendship emerges. But Llewella doesn’t know her father, who abandoned her mother before she was born, whereas Aretha’s father is present, loving and teaches his daughter about her Caribbean heritage. Aretha therefore has a strong sense of identity, which is a form of privilege Llewella doesn’t have. There’s an ongoing conversation about race which is played out through Llewella and Aretha’s relationship and seeing the difference in their families throughout the book.

What problems are young people facing today, particularly online? And how can — or rather should — big tech be helping?

One of the biggest problems I see is how technology is stealing young people’s time. There’s a massive discrepancy between the amount of time teachers say homework should be taking, for example, and how long young people say it actually takes them. When you dig deeper you learn they’re trying to write their essays with chat windows open, watsapping their friends etc. They’re multitasking, which means they aren’t fully focussed on their work and they aren’t fully getting the enjoyment out of interacting with their friends online, either.

Another thing is sleep — because everything’s taking longer and then they often take their devices to bed with them, young people are generally not getting anywhere near the amount of sleep they need. Sleep — both the right quality and quantity — is a cornerstone of mental health.

Big tech could stop deliberately making their products addictive if they really wanted to address this… It would affect their bottom line though so I won’t hold my breath!

This year’s IWD theme is all about breaking the bias: what does ‘break the bias’ mean to you?

The issue that immediately springs to mind is the way we receive and share information. We’re overwhelmed with content and, because humans are prone to confirmation bias, we will inherently absorb and share that which reinforces our pre-existing belief systems whilst ignoring anything which challenges them. This is a process which is then exacerbated by algorithms feeding us content we’re likely to engage with. That’s why we’ve ended up so polarised and shouty. So much of my work — the books I write and talks I do in schools, as well as my show on LBC — is about reclaiming the nuance.

What more needs to be done to protect women online, especially when looking through the lens of mental health?

I think women are held to a much higher standard than men generally and you can see that clearly online — That pressure to be ‘perfect’ manifests at such a young age. I see it in the teenagers I work with. One of them actually said to me ‘I think we’re getting feminism wrong — I thought it was about choice and women being able to do whatever they wanted, not us having to do everything and to do it perfectly’.

Perfectionism is closely linked with self-esteem and mental health. Perfectionists are also always seeking validation as a way to soothe their negative inner-monologue. Women are often ridiculed for posting selfies or ‘humble bragging’, but we exist in an environment which makes those behaviours really hard to avoid.

Body image and mental health also tend to be very closely correlated in women. The way women are objectified and criticised for whatever choices they make or don’t make in relation to how they look online is so damaging. So, we could by addressing that and encouraging people to be less judgmental.

What do you personally do to prioritise your mental health and maintain safe online boundaries? Any advice on how to set healthy boundaries?

A psychologist once told me that social media is the closest you will ever get to observing humans in a vacuum — taking away social cues and putting a screen between us means that pretty much everything we say is a reflection of our inner psyche. I try to remember that. I take a step back when someone is being hurtful or abusive and remember that it’s all about them and not a reflection of me.

I also say sorry when I get things wrong and acknowledge when people make valid criticisms of my content. There’s a real freedom in that — you don’t have to double down and defend yourself or pretend that you’re infallible. Letting go of the idea that social media is a game you can ever objectively ‘win’ definitely helped me.