Ewan Aitken: Social media can’t replace real human contact

Prue Leith accidentally revealed the winner of the Great British Bake Off. Picture: PA
Prue Leith accidentally revealed the winner of the Great British Bake Off. Picture: PA
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Prue Leith’s Great British Bake Off time-zone Twitter slip was a metaphor for our times. That someone in Bhutan could accidentally tell us something we didn’t want to know and trigger such a huge response is a sign of both our global connectedness and our capacity to be impacted by the tiniest of actions – in this case just two words.

There was a time when news from Bhutan would take weeks if not months to reach these shores, and even then it was news about Bhutan, not information about something happening here in Britain.

Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians

Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians

We know the dangers of letting digital media like Twitter be used by unstable narcissists in power and the insidious nature of those who hide like cowards behind the potential anonymity of Twitter, Facebook and the like to abuse women, ethic minorities and anyone else they see as not like them. These are sick people who need help.

Prue’s “mistweet” was much more human and understandable. It was an attempt at celebration, just a little early! Any of us will remember a moment when a surprise has been inadvertently sprung too early and the feeling of utter mortification we have had as a consequence. Sadly, when that slip is two words on Twitter, the effect is far greater because our connectedness is just so much greater.

The truth is, Twitter might connect us to many more people but it is no substitute for the real thing. We find our potential, our sense of belonging, our identity and our contentedness in our real relationships, whether that’s at work, with family, with our neighbours or between friends. We like to spend leisure time with friends and family. We know that good working relationships are a crucial part of bringing the best out of us at work. We can have the nicest house but difficult neighbours will drive us away, while good neighbours help make a house a home.

Which is why those who struggle to make or find relationships don’t just miss out on having someone to share things with – this struggle can make them ill. Recent reports have suggested that feeling isolated, having no one to talk to, to share with, to look forward to seeing is not just sad – it’s a killer. It can reduce life expectancy to a greater extent than obesity, or even, according to some, smoking. It’s one of the reasons this is National Befriending Week, which is an attempt to highlight the issue and what we can do about it.

Loneliness is particularly prevalent in older people and its impact is often the loss of the ability to keep living at home far earlier than would normally be the case. As a homelessness and inclusion charity, the Cyrenians set up older people befriending services first in West Lothian and now in Edinburgh to help people stay longer in their own homes.

Using a combination of individual visiting, telephone befriending and group work, we help folk rediscover their capacity to build the kinds of relationships which will nurture their ability to rediscover their confidence in themselves.

We are still looking for volunteers. Even a couple of half-hour calls a week can make a big difference to someone who otherwise might not have anyone to talk to from one week to the next. And you’ll get to do things you might not otherwise have done. You might even watch next year’s Bake Off together, something which, no thanks to Twitter, will probably be more surprising than this week’s final.

Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians