The internet isn’t all bad.
We’ve all talked about the cons: it’s a place where politics and bad takes can easily divide people, where spite and hate can find a platform, where social anxieties are bred, grown, and dissected under laser-focused microscopes. The internet can never claim to be perfect.
But it is also often a generous space, one with its own language, where people — especially young people, like teens and tweens — can share and connect and ultimately learn from each other.
This tension is at the heart of YouTube star-turned-comedian-turned filmmaker Bo Burnham’s debut film, Eighth Grade. And it’s a message that has resonated with audiences — not the least being the film’s star herself, 15-year-old Elsie Fisher. In an essay for Teen Vogue, she explores her complicated relationship with the internet: one where the internet is the source of some anxieties, but also where she finds help and support for those same mental health issues.
In Eighth Grade, Fisher’s character, 13-year-old Kayla, attends a pool party held by one of the “cool girls” at her school. (The invitation was orchestrated by their parents; both girls know neither one of them want to be doing this.) She goes into the bathroom to put on her bathing suit but before she can, she faces herself in the mirror, grips the edge of the sink, and has a panic attack.
Fisher expands on this feeling, applying it to similar lived experiences: “All social situations freaked me out on a very deep and personal level,” she writes in Teen Vogue, “and I constantly asked myself why I felt this way and if anyone else ever felt the way I did.”
The sensation of freezing in place, feeling dizzy without warning, and having an adrenaline-fuelled lump wedged your throat, making it difficult to talk or breathe, is already a considerably terrifying out-of-body experience. It's even scarier when you don’t have a real idea of what is happening to you: when you don’t have the language to call a “panic attack” what it is, or when you feel as though nobody else can relate.
It’s not like the internet just makes the panic attacks go away. But Fisher, and Eighth Grade, make it clear that now — with smartphones and social media and Google just a tap away — at least anxiety becomes more transparent. Fisher explains how she and her friends are now equipped with the vocabulary necessary to expand on their shared experiences. That, in itself, helps.
“I still shake whenever I have to talk to people, and the phone still gives me butterflies in my stomach. But I’m okay with that,” Fisher writes in Teen Vogue. “I think the path to getting better and slowly breaking free of these feelings starts with accepting them.”