A few days ago, a 16 year-old-girl in Sarawak, Malaysia, uploaded a poll with the heading “Really Important, Help Me Choose D/L” on Instagram Stories. The assumption is that D stood for Death and L stood for Life. After nearly 69% of respondents voted for “D”, she jumped to her death.
This Is Not the First Time
This was a gruesome reminder of when the suicide of a Chinese student in Gansu Province was livestreamed by the Chinese video app ‘Kuaishou’. Some of these livestreams were featured on a geotag page and one even included a banner that read ‘1..2...3.. Jump’.
In 2013, a website largely unknown to adults but incredibly popular with teens, especially those below the age of 18, was considered responsible for at least 9 teenagers committing suicide. This, apart from a vast number of others who indulged in self-harm and abuse due to the kind of messages received by them at ask.fm. Ask.fm is a social media networking site that uses a Q&A format encouraging people to create profiles and ask each other questions anonymously. The website became a popular haunt of kids under the age of 18 while amassing roughly 65 million users worldwide.
A part of this forum soon transformed into a malicious and spiteful circle of name-calling and tormenting that included vile messages egging people to hurt or even kill themselves.
This form of cyberbullicide, where victims can’t escape their aggressors and harassers, has grown increasingly dominant across various social media networking platforms, including giants in the field like Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter. Ofcom recently reported that bullying of teens has risen from 6% in 2016 to 11% in less than 3 years. These aren’t isolated or unlinked instances but a gathering trail of incidents that point towards the distressing trapdoors of social media.
BT and AT: Life Before and After Twitter
I am a millennial by whiskers’ length. I have navigated my youth in both time periods, BT and AT; Before Twitter & After Twitter.
In the beginning, we treated Facebook and Twitter as a hyperactive kitten would in its first encounter with the moving dot of a laser pointer. We followed it around, tried very hard to pin down its intangibility, dedicated exhaustive attention to any mutation in its trajectory, and we disagreed a lot. The unimpeded magnetism of cyber societies rested on the likeable myth of a prostrate and inclusive digital landscape.
We suspended cynicism about restrictive classism in favor of freedoms that were quite blurry in their welcome. It meant well and there was relief from the loneliness of our daily lives. We changed habitats but retained the same modes of interactions without realizing the depth of damage that could accrue in the shadow of anonymous opinionating.
A friend had once equated vehement twitter exchanges to the gibberish of the last few drunks at a house party, who had finally managed to arm-twist a reluctant audience into paying them some attention.
This is something Marshal McLuhan had predicted in a slightly more eloquent phrasing:“The content or message of any particular medium has about as much importance as the stenciling on the casing of an atomic bomb.”
The Good and the Bad of Social Media
It is this bomb, with or without the delicate calligraphy on its casing, that seems to tick inside our skulls with an uncompromising heat when we now participate in conversations via social media.
I am the first to agree that being platformed in itself is an indication of privilege and of ease of networking. In the nearly two decades that I have spent trying to understand the role of community catalysts, it would be some kind of psychological amaurosis to assume that digital soapboxes are enough to empower us fully.
As the organism splits into its plural shapes and we find ourselves hamster-wheeling between legions of apps, the fact is that a significant percentage of people don’t have access to this quick bridge across geographical and socio-cultural boundaries (including its usefulness in community building). This illusion of majority is defeating in itself. That said, it isn’t all insignificant.
These platforms have been utile instruments in organizing protests, forming virtual connections beyond the grips of ableism and geopolitical cordoning, updating the world directly about totalitarian regimes from the ground while also creating a universally recognized dog rating system.
On the flip side, a platform like Twitter is also a dangerous terrain where fascistic, bigoted and misogynistic behaviors recur unchecked.
It is this antithetical environment which can be of help to the most marginalized amongst us, there is still scope for endangering, physically as well as psychologically, our collective well-being.
A paper titled Social Media and Suicide: A Public Health Perspective, published in the American Journal of Public health, has the researchers state the following, “ “Public health is concerned with protecting and improving the health of entire populations, whether those populations are small communities or large nations. Social media, as we understand it today, has created virtual communities without physical borders. ”
"It is not an overreach to state that the internet combines its several freedoms with the most emotionally tenebrous aspects of a dystopian hyper-reality, where it is somewhat impossible to set boundaries that guide individual behaviors. "
A herd mentality is not just activated very quickly but also has shapeshifts, rapidly mimicking the movement of a decentralized swarm. Stealing from French theorist Guy Debord, we live in a society of spectacles.
As someone who has seen the drama unfold from both sides - a seasoned athlete of outrage marathons as well as a victim of mindless smear campaigns- I have recently started questioning the nature of our engagement with these networks that we have created for ourselves.
We have instituted terms like trigger or content warnings, but it continues to get more difficult to protect oneself from harm when hordes of trolls lunge forth from the comforts of their own living rooms (or their parents’ attics/basements).
When a person is already feeling alienated or isolated in their offline lives, the desire to seek community via digital spaces can, at once, be fulfilling, while also leaving one’s throat bare to several eager fangs. The central lever which causes social media bullying resulting in tragedies, is how it exacerbates certain base tendencies and predispositions.
This could range from something acute such as social anhedonia, which essentially means an inability to enjoy activities that we found pleasurable or joyful leading to social detachment in real life, quarantining oneself, and even a complete interpersonal shutdown, to something more generalized like poor self-image or a consistent tinge of FOMO overshadowing our daily survival.
In 1951, gestalt psychologist Solomon Asch started conducting a series of “conformity” experiments in a laboratory on the campus of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. These experiments were designed to study the interactions between individuals and groups from a behavioural standpoint. Asch was interested in assessing the correlations between an individual’s own opinions, beliefs, ideas and actions v/s the desire to fit into a majority group as well as the group’s general influence.
In short, he studied how easy or hard it is for an individual to conform to a group purely for social validation, i.e. being liked & accepted. Social norms, unlike rules, are unwritten instructions for how one should behave in certain social settings. They exist as a loaded contradiction where a covert and pervasive awareness of their presence often collides with this entrenched lack of desire to acknowledge their presence.
Social media has allowed us to find communities that align with our beliefs, value systems, interests, desires and needs. It can be a thriving ground for creative exchange as well as forging meaningful relationships where distance or time can’t position themselves as barricades.
However, the excesses of social media have also shown the more intensely monstrous parts of human engagement.
One of my favourite non-fiction books in recent years has been a collection of essays by Leslie Jaimson, named “The Empathy Exams”. She writes how empathy is not merely inquiry but also imagination : an ability to enter another’s pain, to walk the wet ground of emotions through acknowledgement and without any disdain for getting ourselves a little muddy along the way. Empathy then is a scale where we make distinctions between feeling, responding and reacting.
When we look at some of the problematic behaviours and issues enabled by social media platforms, we have to consider how important it is to cultivate a mindset of compassion, where opinions aren’t arrayed as convictions.
How You Can Help a Person Showing Signs of Suicidal Behavior
How does one intervene when someone is showing signs of suicidal behavior or a possibility of self-damage?
- Perhaps we start by suspending judgment and listen. We engage directly from a place of wanting to understand subtracted from our own inherent biases.
- It is equally important to see if there are mutual friends or acquaintances who can also intervene and help with the process of rescue.
- The most important, perhaps, is to take it offline as soon as possible.
Help them find a trained mental health professional and a safe space where they can be attended to without delay.
- It is equally important to recognize that you are not completely capable of guiding them out of their pain and it is best to rope in people who can including helplines, NGOs or community driven initiatives.
- Always avoid raising a storm if someone goes missing for a while, try a closer circle without raising sirens from the word go.
- Center the people who seem to be suffering as opposed to the desire to play savior. We might have good intentions, but it is important to realize our limitations at such critical junctures.
What the Social Media Companies Can Do
Social media companies need to assess their policies, protocols and guidelines for dealing with the impact they have on users’ mental health and wellness. Some of them, like Tumblr, have started with small steps, where if you type the word ‘depression’ into the searchbox, you get a prompt checking in about how you are feeling and connecting you to helplines. These are more concentrated for users from the West and not as diverse as one would like them to be.
United States based prevention organization Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) works with Facebook, Google, Tumblr to help scan for posts and stories about suicide from users. These are mini steps towards ensuring we have a safer online experience but they are nowhere close to being enough.
To sum it up, I summon Jamison again –
“Empathy isn't just something that happens to us - a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain - it's also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It's made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it's asked for, but this doesn't make our caring hollow.”
(Scherezade Sanchita Siobhan is a clinical psychologist, community catalyst and author)
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