I’m all for digital detoxes but my virtual friendships have given me support when I really needed it

Lucy Hunter Johnston
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My night as a glory supporter was a reminder that sport is universal — and winning is the gateway drug

It all sounds marvellously Malory Towers. Pupils from Roedean School are being sent on a phone-free boot camp “with lots of fresh air and no wi-fi” in order to learn how to talk to each other in the — gasp — real world. The gaggle of internet-addicted sixth-formers will be wrenched from their devices for a week, and instead set team tasks and encouraged to make eye contact, read each other’s facial expressions and play board games. Hockey sticks, ahoy!

This centennial dystopian nightmare is the brainchild of headmaster Oliver Blond, who noticed that even girls who claimed to be friends actually knew very little about one another. “Teenagers can seem so connected but at the same time rather isolated,” he said.

The generational gulf is at its widest when it comes to technology. When I started school we wrote each other letters, and infuriated our parents by clogging up their landlines to play out earnest soap operas late into the night. If that makes me sound like a relic from a bygone age, perhaps I am. For by contrast, Blond’s students won’t remember a world without iPhones, SnapChat and Facebook; their entire lives are conducted and documented online.

Does that matter? Undoubtedly, there is unique comfort to be found in the vulnerability and immediacy of a face-to-face conversation. There’s no filter, no edit button; it’s intimate and real. But it’s far from a lost art, it’s simply that the ways in which we communicate are proliferating — and the kids are leading the charge. In part, their innate fluency in these new languages gives them a distinct advantage over later adopters, to whom the very idea is still rather alien. For while I am all for a well-timed digital detox, I wonder at the idea that virtual friendships are inherently false or devoid of meaning. For me, they have proved invaluable.

Last year I was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder, which has some fairly unwelcome wider implications. Those first days following the news were among the loneliest and most terrifying of my life. Lost in a self-centred whirl of pain, I stubbornly insisted that no one else could begin to understand what I was facing. Friends who tried to help were — unfairly, and perhaps unwisely — knocked back. I didn’t want, and couldn’t bear to hear, the well-meant platitudes offered by anyone on the outside of my experience.

But then I turned to the internet. There I found a thriving community of extraordinary people from across the world, united by nothing more than a shared quirk of biology. Many choose to be anonymous — I don’t know their names, and they don’t know mine. I don’t know their favourite colour, who they are dating or how they take their coffee. But I do know what medication they take, about their hopes and fears and struggles. Most importantly, I know that I wouldn’t have survived the last few months without their support, humour and true friendship. For friendship it is, a non-traditional type, maybe, but no less valuable. No less real.

"On the internet I found a community of extraordinary people, united by just a shared quirk of biology"

I was lucky — or unlucky — enough to stumble upon just one of these cyber-corners of kindness when I needed it most. But it has been truly eye-opening: these varied and sometimes extraordinarily niche groups exist everywhere, cheering and consoling anyone who reaches out. It’s communication at its very best and most universal, and it exists only on a screen in my pocket.

So I won’t be waltzing into the woods for some Scrabble quite yet. There is power in connection … as long as you’ve got phone signal.

Life after Thrones will take getting used to

Maisie Williams as Arya Stark (HBO)

And now our watch has ended. Like most of London, today I am suffering from the mother of all Throne-overs. Yes, eight seasons of dragons, tits and flayings were building up to the dramatic introduction of, er, democracy to Westeros — our hirsute hero implausibly banished to guard against an already defeated enemy, the set-up now perfectly, infuriatingly, laid for a multitude of lucrative spin-offs. Maisie Williams’s Arya Stark will be back.

And so to our collective recovery.

It will involve denial (“the books will tell the real story”), anger (“dracarys”), bargaining (a petition to remake the woeful final series is now one million signatories strong), depression (… just don’t add up how much of your life has been given over to the Seven Kingdoms. OK, fine, it totals more than three whole days), before finally acceptance: better television is coming.

I’m allergic to being asked about allergies

An INFURIATING conversational habit is threatening to ruin my daily caffeine fix. I can only assume that it’s part of a new internal decree but every morning without fail — in a well-known chain that I won’t mention but which rhymes with Peon — I am asked: “And do you have any allergies…?”

As a matter of fact, yes, I do: to the particular type of adhesive used in fake tattoos and plasters. But if that’s going in my flat white, pal, we’re going to have more serious problems than a minor rash.