A lot of people of various generations and ages now like to conflate and condemn the social media generation with teenage stereotypes in general.
Whilst teenagers have had a bad press since the rock’n’roll years, the current lot are often described as worse than ever – you know how it goes: narcissistic, self-and-selfie-obsesssed, and embodying the very worst of the online world. They are unable to communicate face to face and instead live hunched over their phones looking inward and awkward. Hopefully to bloom one day into fully emotionally mature adults of course, and re-take their place in society… but the time and future to do that is not something everyone can take for granted.
When Stephen Sutton from Burntwood, Staffs, was diagnosed with bowel cancer at the aged of 15, his life changed forever. And in December 2012 he was told his illness was now terminal, and he realised he wasn’t going to fulfil his ambition of going to medical school and becoming a doctor. A diagnosis that would have rocked the very foundations of existence for anyone; yet when it strikes at a teenager with their life ahead of them the cruelness is beyond belief – and if this age-group were as self-obsessed as many seem to think, it would have been pretty forgivable in this event for dreams of helping others to take a back seat.
Instead, Stephen got himself together on the social media he loved and made a ‘bucket list’, of 46 things he wanted to accomplish before he died – however long he had left. He realised quickly that his life’s priorities had fundamentally shifted from expectations of quantity to being all about quality. He was young, he had dreams, things he had expected a lifetime to explore and fulfil… that now needed to be reviewed and re-prioritised.
The list included a lot of things that any teenager might aspire to, such as a holiday with the lads and getting a tattoo. His daily-growing cohort of Facebook fans followed his progress, as did readers of his blog, as he planned and celebrated each milestone. He achieved a great many of his goals, more than most of us do in the longer and perhaps less-appreciated lives we are given to do it in, and fulfilled some crazy exciting dreams – skydiving, hugging an elephant, and playing the drums in front of a large crowd (at Wembley stadium). He appeared in a TV soap, delivered a speech at 10 Downing Street, and attracted support from celebrities including Simon Pegg, Russell Brand and Stephen Fry and Simon Cowell.
One of his initial goals was to raise £10,000 for the Teenage Cancer Trust, which helps younger victims of cancer cope with the medical and social consequences of their diagnosis. But by extending his reach via his Facebook Page, fans from around the world became inspired by his integrity, imagination and positivity. At the last count, over £3.6million had been raised in his name.
The bucket list caught the imagination of everyone who read about it, and wanted to help him achieve as many of his dreams as possible in the time that remained. Embodying social media at its most pure and positive, Stephen shared his own upbeat but honest updates on his page. He joked about his tumours and enduring scans and chemo,and one operation after another but pulled no punches about the unpleasantness of it all, just leavening it with smiling thumbs-up selfies and perpetual optimism.
Other sick teenagers looked forward to his updates, that helped them feel less isolated, and the medical research his sharing and relentless activity fundraised to support will all go to ensure that fewer teenagers than ever have their lives cut short by this disease. Medical research is costly and there are always more studies waiting to be funded than resources available, no-one knows where the breakthrough findings will come from… and £3.6million makes a big difference to what can be achieved soonest.
We were told in a recent viral video sweeping Facebook (rather ironically) to desert social media and ‘Look Up!’, implying that communications and relationships online were less valid, significant and serendipitous than those formed in ‘real life’.
I am the first to warn in these pages about the dangers of slactivism and online apathy, but for me, “Stephen’s Story” reminds us all about the powers of true connection and communication. It’s not just about chance meetings on street corners or one-to-one intimacy, it can also be about one young person and they way he looked at his life, capturing the imagination and hearts of people all over the world… embodying intimate connectedness in a way that would simply not have been possible without the kinds of communications technology that we all take for granted.
The final update on Stephen’s Facebook page was posted on May 14th 2014 by his mother:
My heart is bursting with pride but breaking with pain for my courageous, selfless, inspirational son who passed away peacefully in his sleep in the early hours of this morning, Wednesday 14th May. The ongoing support and outpouring of love for Stephen will help greatly at this difficult time, in the same way as it helped Stephen throughout his journey. We all know he will never be forgotten, his spirit will live on, in all that he achieved and shared with so many
Stephen’s fundraising page is hosted at Just Giving, who have worked hard to boost their server capacity over the past few days to cope with the surge of donations… donations which continue to pour in, in celebration of the life this extraordinary young man. You can donate here
Costa Connected, for Costa Blanca News, May 23rd 2014 ©Maya Middlemiss, Casslar Consulting SL