Ben Wilson is a freelance writer who specialises in sports and gaming, and spent five years as editor of Official PlayStation Magazine UK and now writes for various UK publications such as GamesRadar. He was once a prolific blue-badged purveyor of social media. He explains the events that led him to walk away from his old social media dependent lifestyle.
A bit about Ben Wilson
“I’ve been a writer for 20 years. I went to uni in 1998 and studied journalism. That led directly to a job for a TV company that unfortunately went bust after a month. I was actually thinking about jacking it all in but then a job came up writing sports game reviews for Nickelodeon. I did that for a few months then moved to Emap (now Bauer) in the summer of 2002, running the websites for two teen girls magazines, Bliss and More.
After that I moved onto Zoo, the weekly men’s magazine, to launch their website. In 2005, having lived then worked in London all my life I fancied doing something different. I applied for a job in Bath as Reviews Editor on the Official PlayStation Magazine. I’ve always been a gaming geek and that was my favourite magazine growing up. I got the job. I was promoted to Deputy Editor in 2007, then Editor in 2009 where I spent five years at the helm.
Then our first child came along and I started contemplating a career change. My wife went back to work and I became a full-time parent, while freelancing from home. I’ve been doing that now for seven years, and just published my first book”.
Tell us a bit about the book
“In 2019 a lot of things went sour and I needed to make some big changes to take control of my life. That’s when the book idea kicked in. It’s called One Year Without Social Media and is a month by month diary of giving up Instagram, Twitter and Facebook and writing about that experience from the heart. It’s a real melting pot of content. There’s stuff in there about taking control of my mental health, parenting, going through divorce, meeting someone new and much more. It’s been likened very kindly by Amazon reviewers to Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole series, and the work of Bill Bryson. Both of those comparisons are beyond my wildest dreams”.
What was it about social media that made you decide to turn it off?
“My wife and I separated in the summer of 2019 and that December I turned 40. Those felt like watershed moments. Social media has become the focal point of our daily existences and is ever-present in everything we do. I’ve got two children and at half-six in the morning, I’d hear them shouting, yet before going to see them, I’d pick up my phone and have a sneaky look at Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. I thought one of the things I can do to improve things day-to-day is to eliminate that habit.
There were other major factors. A few years ago I wrote a critical piece about Chelsea footballer Eden Hazard falling over in the penalty box. I received an unmentionable Twitter threat aimed at my daughter, the worst possible thing you can imagine. It hit hard. I reported it to the police, the poster was banned, but nothing further came of it. Then there was a rush of events in 2019. For instance, in that winter’s election, I was open about voting for Labour on our village forum. I tried to debate but received abuse in response. And I thought “I don’t need this, I’ve got two children to look after, I need to step away”.
The deal-sealer was a cancer scare just before Christmas 2019. I’ve had psoriasis for years, it’s never bothered me. I went for a routine checkup and my dermatologist said “Ben, you’ve got a patch on your skin that has changed colour, I’m gonna have to cut it off. It should be fine but we have to double check for cancer”.
I went to sit in the waiting room, and I remember thinking, I can’t tell my mum because I don’t want to terrify her. I can’t tell my ex-wife because of where things were at as a couple. I went through my Facebook friends list. I had more than 800 friends and I suddenly realised I had no one to tell because all those relationships had become about surface level stuff, like football and pictures of our kids.
I love those people to bits but in that moment, I didn’t feel that any of those relationships were personal enough for me to share that cancer fear. I felt so lonely sat in that doctor’s surgery. And I knew I had to do the social media project as the only way to reclaim some of those relationships. I didn’t know where it was going to go, or what the eventual story would be. I just started writing daily, and never stopped.
Mental health features big in the book. It’s a huge deal to me. I suffered with catastrophic depression, silently, for ten years. I was taking a drug called Amitriptyline throughout my time editing Official PlayStation. During those major upheavals of 2019, I did one-to-one cognitive behavioural therapy where I spoke openly about my feelings. It changed my life. Those twenty weeks were transformative, and I knew I wanted to write a book that might help other people. That’s what became One Year Without Social Media. It’s a personal memoir I hope people suffering in silence relate to.
How did that year go?
“It was the most incredible and bizarre year. I had a big attack of conscience because of the pandemic. Last May I had to tell myself, ‘just keep going with it. If you end up stopping in July or August, or September, so be it. But don’t just ditch it now because you don’t know how the year is gonna play out’. So on a personal level, it was cathartic for me, it made changes in my life that I just wasn’t expecting.
I started to see things from different perspectives too. My friend Paul lost his dad to Covid in April and I talked to him about it. His father [pictured on the left of Paul, right] had emigrated from Kingston, Jamaica to the UK in the 1960s. Paul told me that when that sad event occurred, his friends on Facebook were incredible. There were 160 different anecdotes and tributes paid from all over the world. He said he was completely blown away and that had helped carry him through his grief. It made me realise how privileged I am as a white dude living in the UK – it’s easy for me to say “I don’t need social media”. For people with relatives around the globe, in this interconnected world we live in, it’s nowhere near that simple. They’d be cutting off swathes of family. That was eye-opening”.
“Huge changes occurred in my life. I read 37 books last year. The year before that I think I managed three! I took up running. One of my ambitions was to run a half marathon, and write about the training and the dietary changes needed and so on. I ended up running five half marathons, and lost one and a half stone.
I made so many positive changes physically, and learned swiftly that those physical changes make such a positive impact on your mental health. It’s such a good feeling of a weekend to go and run 15 or 20k, and then spend time with your children [pictured, left] and feel like you’ve really achieved something. And of course ‘just running 15/20k’ wasn’t easy to begin with. It was a natural extension of all the other baby steps taken throughout the year.
I fell in love. Completely, hopelessly in love with someone new, but in a way which didn’t quite work out. I believed I’d found ‘The One’, then had to watch her walk away. Which actually added to the narrative. I got to write about romance and heartbreak and the mental health aspects of those incredible highs and crushing lows. Which is relatable whatever your age, I think. That break-up kept me writing. Before starting I asked an author friend, “how on earth do you keep going with an entire book?” And he said, “imagine you’re writing to one person.” So I did. It’s effectively a diary addressed to her. Since the book came out everyone asks if we’re together. Sadly not, but it’s incredible that readers are so invested in that story.
Much of the time I got back was spent reconnecting with friends. I heard from an old pal, Ann-Marie, and for the sake of the book I looked up when we last had a one to one conversation. It was 12 years ago. 4380 days. We’ve been friends on Facebook and liked each other’s stuff but we’d never ever, ever actually said “How’s it going?” I’d had two kids, she’d had two kids but we’d just never discussed them. Because that’s how you become in that weird social media comfort zone, don’t you? That was the classic example of the type of relationship I was looking to re-establish when I sat in that doctor’s surgery and had no one to confide in”.
What were the main things you learned during your journey?
“Social media is about balance and context. Before I started this journey I was of the thinking that these formats were all unhealthy, and I’d find loads of really easy ways to tear them apart. Often as a journalist, it’s much easier to write a critical piece damning something than it is to produce something praiseworthy – especially in this world where bad news sells, where bad news gives people an adrenaline surge.
I’ve known my friend Katie [pictured with Ben, opposite] for seven years. That entire time she’s had spasticity down to the left side of her body from a stroke when she was seven. She’s done everything one handed, and I’ve taken it for granted. When you get used to someone’s visual appearance, you don’t necessarily think about what’s going on behind the eyes. I interviewed her for the book, just so to get her perspective on social media, and it changed my views and my relationship with her dramatically.
Until three years ago, she’d never spoken to another stroke victim who knew what she was going through. She joined a group called Different Strokes and was encouraged through the Facebook page to go to one of their weekend meets. It transformed her life. She made lots of new friends who understood what she was going through. Social media and these friendships would turn out to be invaluable when the pandemic hit, where she was isolated and struggling, shielding because of the risk to her health. She’d go on that group and get that burst of energy and encouragement she needed to get through.
It reminded me of how it’s very easy for me in my bubble to say I don’t need social media. Lots of people do need it. That doesn’t mean that my depression and anxiety and other issues aren’t real. But that there’s much more nuance to social media than ‘it’s brilliant’, or ‘it’s terrible’. It’s all about balance”.
How do you feel now?
“I’ve had two friends get in touch to say that they’ve contacted their GPs to discuss depression. While writing the mental health entries in the book, my thought process was that if one person reads this and seeks help, that it stops them reaching the brink, that is a much bigger deal than selling 100, 1000 or 10,000 copies. I really honestly mean that. I self published it, I knew that it was never going to be a massive seller or make money. I just wanted to get these mental health experiences down. So book wise, I feel really pleased that it’s resonated, and people relate to it in that way.
When I started the year without social media, I’d never run a half marathon before. I am not built as a runner, I never have been, I’ve never been into conditioning or diet, I still drink a disgusting amount of fizzy pop. Yet I’ve now run nine half marathons, and finished 170th in this year’s Bath Half.
The year made my relationship with my ex wife so much more amicable. We’re moving to two different houses where we’ve mapped everything out in a really strong way that will benefit the kids. I cleared out so much stuff using the Marie Kondo method. I’ve always been a hoarder and I got rid of more than 50% of my possessions.
All these little changes have been massive. That’s not to say there haven’t been challenges, from homeschooling to mental health stuff in the pandemic. But as an overall picture, the change in me since I started the book has been huge. I’m still on social media 15 minutes a day, but it doesn’t dominate my life like it used to. I never do that thing in the mornings of reaching down the side of the bed to check Facebook before I spend time with my girls. Indeed, my understanding of how to be a patient dad, and an amicable ex-husband, are night and day from where we were at as a family before writing the book. That has been the most impactful transformation of all”.
Ben Wilson was talking to Davis Mukasa
Details of Ben’s book below