Results day. The day when thousands of A-level students find out the marks for the final exams that determine whether or not they have got into university, and if so, where they’ll be spending the next few years. It’s a landmark moment, not that any of you getting your results today need me to tell you that.
If you’ll allow an old(er) woman a moment of reminiscence, I remember my own results day well, even if it was just over a decade ago. I wasn’t among those who had been phoned up the night before to come down early to jump up in the air alluringly for the local papers (not nubile enough, perhaps, or maybe I’d just failed horribly), so I slept in. I finally showed up at around 2pm (by which time my friends had been in the pub for hours), not because I didn’t care, but because I cared so much. I didn’t want other students around when I found out my future. I was terrified of failure.
Thankfully, social media didn’t really exist then. Otherwise I would have woken up to post after post of other pupils’ celebrations, which would have served only to compound the fear. Which is why I’d advise today’s cohort to be cautious about how much they boast. This is an important moment, yes, but one of your friends’ hearts is probably breaking as you upload that celebratory status. For every dream that, on results day, transpires into concrete quads and bicycles and medieval libraries, there’s another turning to dust. Be humble.
It’s a good lesson for the future. Much has been made of the so-called iGen – today’s teenagers who have grown up never knowing a time before the internet and smartphones existed – and the impact that 24/7 connectivity and constant social media sharing could be having on mental health. Certainly rates of depression and anxiety have skyrocketed.
I suspect that my generation, which is only a few years older than today’s teenagers, caught the tail end of this. Certainly, we’re acutely conscious of the look-at-me competitiveness of social media, a world of self PR in which people are their own publicists, yet at the same time many of us continue to be guilty of it ourselves. Right now, in our mid- to late-20s and early 30s, it’s exotic travel, weddings, babies and – my least favourite – house selfies. “Look at the keys to the house we just bought!” “Look at our brand new flat!” It’s easy to see why people are happy (unless you’re very lucky, it’s no picnic getting that money together these days), but it also feels like a punch in the guts to those who are so far away from achieving that dream, if they ever will. No wonder so many of my friends have quit social media recently.
In this social media bubble, where people’s lives are condensed into ruthlessly curated news feeds, only certain kinds of updates are really acceptable. You’re fine to post an ultrasound announcing that you’re pregnant, but it would be frowned upon for me to have jubilantly posted a negative pregnancy test every time I had a scare, and even less so for a couple to post frankly about their miscarriage. If you’ve bought a house, fine. If your house has been repossessed, not so fine.
When people do go ahead and break this social contract, revealing the pain, grief, or depression that they are feeling online, you note that it makes people uncomfortable. The sympathetic likes and comments may roll in, but there’s a sense that so much raw unhappiness is unbecoming, somehow. It undermines the facade. Instead of presenting people with a pleasing spectacle which they can passively scroll through and heart before getting on with their day, it demands something of them. That demand is conscious engagement. People don’t like it. It reveals the world as the sad place it so often can be.
Which is why, if you’re a teenager, you might see uploads of plenty of transcripts displaying straight As, but you’re unlikely to be subject to a devastated status from a friend whose plans lie in tatters at their feet. By all means celebrate – you’ve worked hard as a guinea pig in what amounts to an untested new exam system – but spare a thought for those who haven’t done as well as they hoped today. And also bear in mind that, though it might feel like it, life isn’t some linear track on to which you are now irrevocably attached, always moving forwards, onwards, upwards. There’ll be setbacks too. Of the friends I celebrated results day with 12 years ago, quite a few switched courses or dropped out. Some of us ended up in places we never thought we would, myself included, as I write this.
The jury is out on whether the supposedly toxic effects of the internet are really all that toxic. But nonetheless, you’ve spent the last couple of years with either your head in a book or your eyes glued to a screen. It’s time to get down the pub and see your friends in person, popping the prosecco with those who did well, and comforting those who didn’t. Social media can wait. Believe me, you have a whole life ahead of wrestling with that shit.
• Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist