As fall begins and kids start their trek back to school, an issue lingers in the back of everyone’s mind. Is there going to be another school shooting? If so how bad will it be?
The previous nightmarish year of gun violence in schools was horrendous, and the horror of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida is still fresh on many parents’ minds. Some students from that very school used their anguish to lobby for gun reform. Others are just concerned about getting back to class.
During a heated debate over the subject, G.C. Hutson, a mediator colleague of mine, posed a rather interesting theory over the cause of so much gun violence in schools: what if social media was part of the problem?
Before you dismiss the theory as the grumpy ramblings of a curmudgeon-in-training, consider the following: This year’s incoming freshmen never lived in a world without Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat. A 2011 Pew study found cell phone users between 18-24 exchange over 109 text messages a day. People spend so much time on their cell phones staring at a screen that “text neck” is now recognized as a spinal condition.
We spend more time staring down at the screens of our phones looking at words than we do looking at the people in front of us.
What if this reduces our ability to see people as actual human beings? If you spend your time communicating with others not by voice, but by words on a digital screen with a picture representing the person, could that potentially make it easier for you to dismiss the person as an actual human being?
And if it was possible for you to stop seeing another person as human, to reduce them to a mere digital presence in your own life, how much easier would it be to pick up a weapon and physically “delete” them?
This isn’t saying if we cut off social media gun violence in schools would go away. It’s not to suggest that evil doesn’t factor into the equation, or to start down the rabbit hole of gun control reform. What’s at stake here is how far we’ve distanced ourselves from the people closest to us.
We sign onto social media with the idea in mind that we’ll be able to reconnect with loved ones and friends from school. We text rather than talk because we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking that it’s quicker, more private*, and simpler than calling a person.
Then we find the reality: social media is programmed to be addictive, you get into regular shouting matches with your best friend from high school over politics, and what could get accomplished in five minutes with a phone call takes hours to complete using your thumbs.
And we’re allowing it into the lives of our children earlier and earlier. Children are getting access to cell phones now by age ten. Daycares push tablets towards their young charges, telling parents it’s part of a balanced STEM curriculum. The parents nod their heads in approval, thinking it’s okay that young Jimmy can use apps but still struggles with tying his shoes.
What if we’re fundamentally rewiring the brains of young people to see those around them as less than human? What if this reshaping of the way we communicate is causing us to write off how we treat others in real life?
And isn’t it odd that in an age when we’re in an uproar over Silicon Valley’s mining of our personal information and censorship of voices we don’t like, no one’s asking whether it makes us see people as less than human?
A recent piece of insipid drivel at The Atlantic discussed the death of “phone culture,” or why few people actually picked up the phone anymore. You won’t find a link to it here, because my esteemed mean-ass editor has this thing about not making people stupider. The post attempted to give credit to reaction GIFs, bitmoji, emoji, animoji, and various message platforms for the lack of a ringing phone.
Maybe “phone culture” is what we need more now than ever. If we start talking again, maybe we’ll see each other for the complex human beings we are, not reduced to remarks on a screen.
And maybe, just maybe, that will lead to a decrease in violent behavior in schools.
It wouldn’t hurt to give it a shot, especially when “social media detoxing” is now a thing.
*Before you even begin to start typing in the comment, I’m quite familiar with just how private text messages aren’t. The word “deluded” is there for a reason.