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health as it happens

David Baddiel and his daughter on his social media addiction: ‘it can reward and punish you’ - The Guardian

O ver the past 30 years, I have read and heard David Baddiel’s thoughts on many subjects, including sex, masturbation, religion, antisemitism, football fandom, football hooliganism, his mother’s sex life and his father’s dementia. “I am quite unfiltered,” he agrees, “mainly because I am almost psychotically comfortable in my own skin.” But today I have found the one subject that makes him squirm.

How much time does he spend on social media a day? “Oh, um, too much,” he says, his usual candour suddenly gone. What’s his daily screen time according to his phone? “It says four hours, which is a bit frightening.”

I’ve been up to five, I admit. “OK, I’ve been up to five, too, I cut it down a bit now,” he says with a relieved laugh. “I always think, ‘But that’s not fair, you mean I’ve just had [the phone] open!’, like I’m arguing with my phone. You find any justification to do what you want to do. Fuck knows how much time I’ve wasted on Twitter.” He might not be able to quantify the hours, but he can do the wordcount: since 2009, he has sent 65,000 tweets.

We are in Baddiel’s book-stuffed house on the edge of Hampstead Heath in London, and his appearance is rumpled yet cerebral, like a well-worn loafer. Also living in the house with Baddiel is his daughter, Dolly, 20, who is studying for a BA in theatre dance with classical ballet specialism, his 17-year-old son, Ezra, who is studying music, and his wife, the writer Morwenna Banks. All around us are souvenirs from Baddiel’s career, which has made him a semi-ubiquitous, Zelig-like figure in Britain over the past four decades: a photo from when he was on early 1990s swotty-but-also-rock’n’roll comedy show The Mary Whitehouse Experience, with Rob Newman, Hugh Dennis and Steve Punt; many more of him with Frank Skinner, from his years as a TV football bloke and with whom, along with the Lightning Seeds, he wrote the England team’s unofficial but undeniable anthem, Three Lions; stacks of his successful children’s books, and last year’s surprise publishing success, Jews Don’t Count, his polemic against modern antisemitism. It is an almost parodic image of happy creativity, a household in which everyone is free to pursue their passions. Yet Baddiel, 57, has spent an unbearable-to-think-about amount of time in it bent over his phone – not writing more books, not admiring his views of the heath, not hanging out with his family, but talking to and arguing with strangers. He is – like millions of others – addicted to social media. Twitter, in his case, and he tweets regularly to his 780,000 followers about everything from news events to the time he accidentally set his glasses on fire in a microwave. But why?

“We are living in a very narcissistic time, and what’s the most narcissistic thing you can do? Always have an audience, and that’s what social media gives you,” he says. I tell him that I think of Twitter as being to the 21st century what cocaine was to the 1990s: too many celebrities and media figures are on it, it makes you anxious and angry, but you worry if you quit you’ll miss out on what the in crowd are saying.

“That’s true, but it’s also more than that: Twitter, for example, pretends it’s a marketplace of ideas, but it’s not. It’s a marketplace of identities, and you broadcast your identity via political opinion, and the only way you can claim that identity is to be the loudest and the angriest, and to do it in opposition to everyone who thinks differently from you,” he says. He talks in fast, thoughtful paragraphs and I feel as if he’d be happy for us to have a conversation just about anything, as long as I kept up my end and talked about it in an interesting way.

He knows that many people roll their eyes about social media, and it’s a snobbery he has little time for. “It’s ridiculous to be high-minded and say it’s not real life when it’s clearly having massive effects on society. It drives a way of thinking, a lot of political agendas and what goes in the newspapers. It’s not a fringe discourse – it’s at the nexus of power,” he says. People who dismiss social media as an irrelevancy, he says, are like people in the 1950s who thought television was a frivolous fad. After all, a book almost entirely about Twitter, Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, was shortlisted for the Booker prize this year.

Baddiel thinks a lot about social media. He recently finished touring his live show, Trolls: Not the Dolls, in which he looked at how abusive discourse is being normalised online (the Guardian gave it four stars). Now he has made a sober BBC documentary, David Baddiel: Social Media, Anger and Us, which was born out of a wider interest (he wanted to know how social media is changing the world) and a personal ambition (he hoped making the show would shame him into quitting Twitter. Spoiler: it does, but only very, very temporarily). The documentary has two real strengths: the first is that Baddiel is neither John Cleese nor a Silicon Valley proselytiser, so he doesn’t take either of the usual, simplified stances. “Usually you get, ‘This is just snowflakes tweeting what they had for breakfast’, or ‘This is disempowered people finally getting a chance to speak.’ I don’t think either is necessarily true. The truth is always more complex,” he says.

This is where the documentary’s other strength comes in: its contributors. The always interesting philosopher and computer scientist Jaron Lanier is especially good, pointing out the overlap between countries that have seen a rise in populism in the past decade and countries that have Facebook, and I enjoyed commentator Ayishat Akanbi’s description of social media as the place “where the formerly bullied feel justified to bully”. But the one who really goes beyond the generalities to the personal is Baddiel’s daughter, Dolly.

I first met Baddiel about 15 years ago through a mutual friend. After that, we would occasionally bump into one another, but the majority of our interactions were – predictably – over social media. A couple of years ago he asked if we could meet for coffee. He wanted to talk because he knew I’d been anorexic as a teenager and his then teenage daughter, Dolly, was in hospital for anorexia, and he was frantic with worry. I didn’t help much; he found my determined optimism about Dolly a little hard to take when it all felt so hopeless to him. But she did, thankfully, recover, and she is in the documentary talking about the part social media played in the development of her illness. It’s the first time she and her father have talked publicly about her anorexia. I ask Baddiel why he never spoke about Dolly’s illness before, given that he talks about everything else.

“My process in life is, if something is difficult to talk about, then I will talk about it. But this was Dolly’s thing, not mine, and it was so dangerous while it was going on that I thought, ‘I cannot disturb this in any way that might be counterproductive to her getting better,’” he says. Also, unlike his father’s dementia, which he often tweets about, and his late mother’s infidelity, which he made a live show about in 2016, the brilliant My Family: Not the Sitcom, he couldn’t see a funny side to it.

David and Dolly.
David and Dolly Baddiel. She first got into social media in her second year of secondary school. ‘I think it was Instagram first, where you’d see photos of the popular girls going to parties.’ Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Guardian

When he asked Dolly if she’d like to be in his documentary, it wasn’t, he says, because he was thinking about her eating disorder. “I thought, I need to speak to a young person who has grown up with social media and I know she’ll have stuff to say about that. It was only when she started talking about the anorexia that I thought, ‘Ah. Of course.’”

As he’s recalling this, the front door slams shut: Dolly is home from college. She and her father greet and tease one another – her lateness, his chattiness – with the ease of people profoundly comfortable with one another. But she tells him that she’ll talk to me more easily without him there, so he leaves us alone.

Dolly first got into social media in her second year of secondary school. “I think it was Instagram first, where you’d see photos of the popular girls going to parties. Then it was Tumblr and there was already a strong identity politics thing coming through on that. It was the prime social justice warrior era there. So I had these two instances of young people claiming these very different kinds of identity online,” she says.

In the documentary, Dolly talks about her generation’s fascination with identity: “We’re so desperate to put ourselves in a box, in terms of sexuality, gender, race, class. I think it feels nice to feel like you have a solid identity when you actually don’t. But attaching yourself to a movement is an easy way to run away from self-hatred.”

Did she feel as if she had an identity before she became ill? “It’s hard to say because – and I think this is where the problem lies – you’re not supposed to have a fully realised identity at 13, 14. But I think social media has exacerbated this need to have an identity, because otherwise you won’t be seen and you won’t have a tribe, basically. I think it’s especially damaging when it comes to young and vulnerable people; they’ll see something that slightly aligns with them and they’ll click into it because it provides them with a sense of safety.”

Young people are not the only ones who establish their identity online. Baddiel’s Twitter biography is, simply, “Jew”. “That was supposed to be a joke, because the identity is complicated – I’m an atheist, non-Zionist Jew,” Baddiel later says when I point this out. “But people don’t want complicated identities, especially on social media, maybe because it makes them seem nebulous.” And while the identity may have started as a joke, it has arguably become the reality. When researchers in the documentary look up what words appear most often in the abusive tweets sent to him, the main one is “Jewish”. This, more than “comedian” or “football fan”, is how people – at least on Twitter – now primarily see him.

Dolly did have a bit of an online identity at 14. She was into David Bowie, so posted a lot about him, and about her love of dance. “I always had something I was obsessed with, and that’s partly because I’m quite an obsessive person,” she says. She had told people when she was younger she wouldn’t develop anorexia, having seen others do so. “But once I was in it, I was chasing it to no end. It’s not just about the eating disorder, but also that subconscious desire to carry out a role in a certain identity. No one goes into it wanting to be anorexic, but that identity part is very insidious, and it can happen without you realising,” she says.

Dolly had struggled with some issues before, such as anxiety. But when she was 15, the anorexia bit into her deeply, and soon after that she was diagnosed. This is when social media became a problem, but, while her father is addicted to Twitter, it was Instagram that hooked Dolly.

“After I was diagnosed, I entered that online eating disorder recovery space,” she says. Eating disorder recovery is very big on Instagram. A decade or so ago, there were panics over “pro-ana” and “ana-inspo” sites, where people with anorexia egged one another on to lose more weight, and posted photos to display, with pride, their sick bodies. These have largely been shut down by regulators and are replaced with eating disorder recovery accounts. This might seem like a positive shift, but anorexia is generally a competitive sickness and too often “eating disorder recovery” is just an anorexic humblebrag, in which people post proud photos of their frail limbs and nasogastric feeding tubes.

“We weren’t allowed phones in hospital, but when I’d come out I’d struggle a lot and look at all this eating disorder content online and become all-consumed with the journeys of strangers,” she says.

One day, she texted her father to ask if he’d send her a photo he took of her right after she was discharged from hospital. Unbeknown to him, she wanted to post it along with one taken before she was admitted. “There are a lot of ‘before and after’ photos on anorexia recovery sites, but it was just performative, and I think that’s so applicable to other things about identity stuff online. I wasn’t better, I was just trying to portray a narrative that I’d seen online, the idea that there’s a neat beginning and end to an eating disorder, and it’s not like that. It’s just fake,” she says.

Dolly is now in recovery. I ask her how she thinks social media affected her eating disorder. “It didn’t cause it. It annoys me when people blame anorexia on diet culture, because it runs so much deeper and is totally individual. Feeling lost comes from something deeper than social media, but once you are in that mindset and are vulnerable, social media exacerbates it,” she says.

Y et, if social media had no good sides, it wouldn’t attract billions of users. Like Baddiel, I use Twitter way too much, and, also like him, I enjoy it because I’ve made new friends on it, stayed in touch with old friends and I’ve read thousands of interesting articles I otherwise wouldn’t have seen. It’s also destroyed my ability to concentrate, caused me overwhelming anxiety, and twice forced me to call the police when I was sent death threats on it. A part of me suspects that one day people will see social media like alcohol: fun in doses, but not to be chugged on all day, and not good for kids. A bigger part suspects that this particular horse has long since bolted.

I ask Baddiel if he knew Dolly was so deep into Instagram while she was ill. “Not really, because she became much more secretive. She is not naturally someone who lies, but that is what the disease does.”

He gets material and – to a certain extent – enjoyment from the combativeness of social media, but for his daughter it was extremely damaging. Partly this is because he is an adult and she was a child; he was healthy and she was sick and vulnerable; he’s “psychotically comfortable” in his skin, and she very much was not; he’s a public figure and she’s a private citizen. But it’s also because they’re different people. Related, but different. Social media isn’t one thing or the other. You can think it’s important, and also be ashamed of how much time you spend on it. The truth is always more complex.

Baddiel knows he wastes too much time on social media, and his family is bewildered by his addiction. “I think, ‘OK, I’ve written a paragraph of my book, so I can reward myself [with Twitter].’ But you’re going to a place of reward that may punish you,” he says. So – I ask again – why? He hardly needs the publicity. Why bother fighting with strangers online? “I don’t do it as much as I used to,” he says, a teeny bit defensively. “But I think, ‘I’m a comedian, I have to respond.’ In standup, I’ve been heckled many times, and I know what it’s like to have abusive men, mainly, shout at me, and I know how to marshal the room against them with comedy, and it feels like it’s the same process on Twitter. But what you don’t get in comedy is 2,000 people telling you to die.” You don’t, but you also don’t have thousands of people instantly telling you how funny you are. Social media hits a very human sweet spot, being two parts narcissism to one part masochism. And sometimes, that balance tips.

In the late 90s, when Baddiel was hosting Fantasy Football League with Skinner, he did impressions of the footballer Jason Lee, in which he blacked up. He has since apologised, but many people, especially on Twitter, regularly use it as an excuse to discredit him when he talks about antisemitism.

“For people who get a thrill from anger, apologies make no difference. There’s a notion now online that shouting itself has a kind of nobility, that it’s the voice of the disenfranchised,” he says. If Baddiel wasn’t on social media, this embarrassment from his past would have been largely forgotten. Because he is, it has become part of his identity and, online, identities stick. Nonetheless, it hasn’t put him off Twitter.

At the end of the documentary, Baddiel comes off Twitter for a few weeks and, almost immediately, he finds that he is sleeping better, feels happier and has improved concentration. Yet, despite all these benefits, he returns to the site. “Partly because of my job of being a performer, and also because I’m frightened of being excluded from the conversation,” he says, and I suspect it’s at least 75% the latter and 25% the former.

I, too, am still on Twitter for those same reasons, but also for another: it can be lonely working from home. I miss being in an office surrounded by friendly colleagues. Having Twitter open all day initially felt a bit like that, but since the start of the pandemic, when emotions became even more fevered than usual, it’s felt more like trying to work in a very angry train station at rush hour. So now I rely on a different site for company: WhatsApp, with its small groups of people who are actually my friends. They are at least as funny as strangers on Twitter, and a lot less likely to publicly shame me. According to my phone, I spend just over an hour a day on WhatsApp and 12 minutes a day on Twitter. I can live with that.

For a while, following Instagram accounts about anorexia provided Dolly with comfort: her friends from school had no way of understanding what she was going through, and here was a group with whom she could feel kinship. “But even though I was still not in a good way, I made a decision to stop following all these recovery accounts,” she says. She is still on social media, because it’s fun, she says. “I need time to do mindless things, and social media is the perfect vessel for that.”

What does she look at online now? She thinks for a few seconds: “Cat content.”

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