Sarah Todd: Real-life social networks show what friends are

War Horse author Michael Morpurgo is leading a new campaign to counter social isolation amongst young people.
War Horse author Michael Morpurgo is leading a new campaign to counter social isolation amongst young people.
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GROWING up in the countryside of the 1970s and 80s, my friends were mostly made up of other children from the village and a few extra people at school. Probably no more than about a dozen people that were real mates.

It’s baffling how today’s children have hundreds of “friends” but – as former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo warned – they have never been more isolated.

Social media, things such as Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat, make it possible for many modern youngsters to be connected to several hundred “friends”. This mother started with a strict “would you invite them home for tea?” rule and over the years this cucumber sandwich scale has been diluted to people you would stop and have a chat with if you bumped into them in town.

The younger generation of our family used to think this was over-the-top when they watched others climb the popularity ladder with hundreds of “friends” but have started to see the sense in it thanks to two old-fashioned organisations.

As you read this, The Daughter will be at our district Young Farmers’ Club (YFC) annual rally. She’s spent the last few weeks judging horses and cattle and her friends (note the absence of inverted commas) will be taking part in all sorts of activities from tug-of-war to cake baking and pedal tractor racing.

She wouldn’t swap these real-life friends and experiences for all the hundreds of followers that the narcissistic girls on her Instagram have. She now sees through the scantily-clad pouting for what it is– sad.

Tonight, there will be a dance (not sure they call them that anymore) and doubtless there will be the odd one ending the night a little worse for wear. But the thing about the Young Farmers’ Club is the family feel; that nobody is left staggering around for long. They are gathered up and sorted out. Somebody will know somebody who knows who they are and where they live. They communicate with each other.

Of course, while we oldies used to get a printed programme, modern-day meeting details are posted online. But when they actually arrive at the farm visit, go-karting or whatever it may be they talk to each other.

Something makes me think that author Morpurgo would approve of the YFC movement. There are a lot of parallels with his charity Farms For City Children, where young people “put on their wellies and coats and become farmers for a week”.

He has had around 100,000 children visit three farms in Devon, Wales and Gloucestershire over the last 40 years, where they get involved with jobs such as milking, lambing, digging potatoes and hay-making.

Morpurgo should be made an honorary Education Secretary as he absolutely gets it that there is more to learning than “sitting in the classroom and just doing punctuation”. He understands that social skills are just as important.

His charity is aimed at city children, but it’s not just urban youngsters that are isolated.

Back to where we started in the 1970s and 80s and rural villages were full of children on bikes, knocking on each other’s doors and “playing out”. But today’s property prices mean that an increasing number of young locals are forced out of the countryside. Villages are full of affluent couples with no children, holiday homes and the prosperous early retired. There are hardly any children.

While my mother opened the door and off we went to meet up with pals, a modern-day childhood in the countryside means ferrying off in cars to get together with others their own age.

Morpurgo also mentioned bullying and, more specifically, how many nasty comments are made on social media.

Back in the day, somebody would say something mean (with bright orange curly hair there was always a clever clogs) and it would get sorted out. They would get a clip around the ear and everything would get back to normal. But nowadays nastiness gains momentum on the Internet. Somebody makes an unpleasant comment and all their “friends” feel obliged to join in. It’s also there, in black and white, for the victim to keep looking back at.

Last weekend The Son was at scout camp. All the scouts and guides from the district gathered in a field kindly given-up by a local estate. Mobile phones were banned and they spent three days and three nights (between fun things like raft making and chores like washing up) talking to each other. One young man we know even got a dance with a girl guide.

“I talked to her last year,” he let slip under interrogation. Then, 12 months later, they had bumped into each other again around the camp fire. This young lady didn’t have to post a provocative picture online to secure the attentions of a boy. She simply said “hello, how are you?” How refreshing.

More information about Michael Morpurgo’s charity from www.farmsforcitychildren.org

Find out about the Yorkshire Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs at www.yfyfc.org.uk and scouting at www.scouts.org.uk.

Sarah Todd is a former editor of Yorkshire Life magazine. She is a farmer’s daughter, mother and journalist specialising in country life.