The best thing about social media is how it knits the world together. Whether we are celebrating the Olympics or recovering from a senseless tragedy, our mobile devices offer important tools to connect with the ones we love.
And after the tragedy in Newtown, I am reminded that Facebook is the ultimate community organizer.
But the downside of social media — along with 24/7 media coverage and the propensity to sleep with our mobile phones — is that the brain is tricked into believing that a shared observation of an experience is really a shared experience.
It’s not. Those two things are different. Let me explain.
- After 9/11, researchers noted that some people who watched the towers fall over and over again on television suffered from PTSD-like symptoms.
- It is believed that high resolution TV screens, plus the emotional intensity of the media coverage, made certain people feel as if they had witnessed the 9/11 tragedy themselves even when they were in places like Iceland or Tokyo.
I can see this daily in my Facebook timeline. Due to the integration of media into our lives, people are having emotional and cognitive responses to events that don’t directly impact them. There are serious and visceral reactions to everything from the fiscal cliff to the shootings in Aurora to Hurricane Sandy from people who are totally unaffected.
That’s both good and bad.
It is good when people pay attention and get passionate. At last year’s SHRM conference, Malcolm Gladwell noted that the Egyptian people used Twitter to mobilize against Hosni Mubarak in Tahrir Square; however, it was only after the government shut off access to the internet that people actually left their homes and made a final push towards freedom.
After the shootings in Newtown, I wonder if social media plays any positive role. All the early news reports were wrong. My friends and colleagues responded swiftly to the tragedy by posting commentary and pictures of their children on Facebook. Some offered poems. Others offered prayers. Many are now descending into stupid political battles.
At an important time like this, what the universe demands is action. I looked at my own aggregated newsfeed and felt like a shared article or a picture on my timeline would not do any good. And for those in my life who might actually know someone who was injured, I worried that my own personal expression of sadness — mixed in with shoddy news reporting — might do some harm.
So what kind of action can any of us take beyond hugging children and posting bible verses on Facebook?
Well, children are hurt every single day around the world. Do one small thing to address it. Don’t buy clothes from companies and industries that violate child labor laws. Don’t ignore or encourage bullying. Be bold and seek to provide better access to mental health treatment for children and adults who show signs of distress or depression.
It’s also important to balance the competing forces of distance and empathy. While the school shooting was horrific, you should remember that the tragedy in Newtown didn’t happen to you or your family. It happened to these individuals and their families:
- Charlotte Bacon, 6
- Daniel Barden, 7
- Rachel Davino, 29
- Olivia Engel, 6
- Josephine Gay, 7
- Ana G. Marquez-Greene, 6
- Dylan Hockley, 6
- Dawn Hochsprung, 47
- Madeleine F. Hsu, 6
- Catherine V. Hubbard, 6
- Chase Kowalski, 7
- Jesse Lewis, 6
- James Mattioli, 6
- Grace McDonnell, 7
- Anne Marie Murphy, 52
- Emilie Parker, 6
- Jack Pinto, 6
- Noah Pozner, 6
- Caroline Previdi, 6
- Jessica Rekos, 6
- Avielle Richman, 6
- Lauren Rousseau, 30
- Mary Sherlach, 56
- Victoria Soto, 27
- Benjamin Wheeler, 6
- Allison N. Wyatt, 6
I know, I know. You have children. It hits close to home. And we are all part of one great community in this world. But not every national event benefits from instant commentary or overly emotional responses. In fact, the world benefits from calm and amazing people who stay off social media and seek to find solutions in the real world.
I feel like the best thing we can do as parents and as a citizens after a tragedy like Newtown is the simplest: Shut off our mobile devices, turn off the TV and hug our loved ones in private.
Even if the moment isn’t captured on Facebook, it still counts.
In fact, it might count more.