Modern communication and an alarming disappearance…

THE ways of communication between parent and distant, more-or-less grown-up child are easy nowadays. Or they are if the O2 network is working.

This thought is raised by various memories and a worrying headline. The personal flashbacks include my time-shot university days in the 1970s when phones were bolted down rather than mobile. A call home required standing in a queue with a fistful of change.

In my first term away, I managed that once. Today’s young people are more attentive to their possibly anxious parents, texting or messaging daily. That’s my impression from talking to students, and from having a post-student daughter who was distant but isn’t for now.

This is almost certainly for the good, although at a time when mental health concerns among students are high, it’s possible to wonder if the old casting off didn’t also have its advantages. My mother wondered and worried, as she has since told me, but I just got on with being a student castaway 200 miles away in that London.

Would young people freshly away from home be better off not being in such constant contact? Would breaking the parental bond a bit more reduce anxiety? No idea, but that doesn’t happen now thanks to mobile communication.

When our daughter had her year in Australia, she messaged her mum most days. She sent me notes, too. We faced-timed and some days she called the house phone, usually as she was walking back from the gym in Perth. Towards the end of her long absence, she went backpacking. That’s when she had the most fun, and when in theory we had most cause to worry, not that I remember fretting much.

The worrying headline concerns a 22-year-old British backpacker who appears to have disappeared while travelling alone in central Auckland, New Zealand. Grace Millane messaged her parents every day, then the messages stopped, and she hasn’t been in touch for a week.

Her family said Grace normally bombarded them with pictures of her travels. In a statement, they said: “Grace has never been out of contact for this amount of time, she is usually in daily contact… we are all extremely upset. It is a very difficult at this time to fully describe the range of emotions we are going through.”

Her father arrived in Auckland yesterday, tired and distraught. There isn’t much more than can be said about the disappearance of Grace Millane. The modern media habit of expressing concern online – “We are thinking of you at this difficult time”, or whatever – always strikes a wrong note for me.

Shared humanity should make such a statement redundant, and newspapers putting such messages on their websites risk tipping into unhelpful sentimentality. The media’s job at such times of extreme worry for families they don’t know is just to convey the facts as best they can.

That isn’t a heartless observation; it’s just that newspapers shouldn’t need to say that they care, as that should be implicit in the business of being a human being.

Naturally enough, I hope the news is better than it sounds.

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