Seaton: An Unrung School Shooting Issue

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.

32 thoughts on “Seaton: An Unrung School Shooting Issue

  1. delurking

    “what if social media was part of the problem?”
    There is very little question that social media is part of the problem, so I won’t accuse you of grumpy ramblings.
    “What if this reduces our ability to see people as actual human beings?”
    This, on the other hand, is very speculative. What if adding another mode of contact increases our ability to interact socially, and thus raises our dependence on human contact?
    “What’s at stake here is how far we’ve distanced ourselves from the people closest to us.”
    More likely, we are emotionally closer to people who don’t live near us than before, because we share more about our lives. Certainly, as means of communication have proliferated (nothing, really slow mail, telegraph, telephone, internet), people have become closer and the world has become less violent.

    1. Mark Bennett

      Your “more likely … because” strikes me as wishful thinking, since the “sharing” is broad but shallow. What we would once have shared with a few intimates face to face we now broadcast to the world for a dopamine rush.

      Has the world become less violent on the scale on which school shootings occur? That is, is there less violence against meatspace acquaintances and their meatspace acquaintances (people within two degrees of separation in the real world) than there was before social media? I don’t know the answer, but if there is, that would suggest that social media is not the problem.

      1. delurking

        Certainly, the world is less violent on the scale at which school shootings occur. Murder rates are down over the last 50 years, and murders have overwhelmingly been among acquiantainces or near-acquiantances for all of history.

        As for my thinking, consider this: technology has been continuously giving us more and more options for communication for about 150 years. The trend has been that this allows people who don’t see each other daily to be emotionally closer, not more distant. Does this particular new technology continue the trend or reverse it? Well, odds are it continues it. If the non-contact nature of this technology causes increases in acquaintance or near-acquiantance violence, why didn’t it happen for mail, telegraph, telephone, etc.? You have to get way into the weeds of speculative psychological effects to claim that going from face-to-face to voice-only is dramatically different from going from voice-only to texting.

        1. CLS

          I will cede your point that technology offers us more options of communicating. The issue with that is as new methods are developed, old ones fall by the wayside. I can’t remember ever having sent a telegram, and I shake my head these days when someone asks for a fax number.

          And one doesn’t need to get into speculation to see the current methods of communication are bringing with them serious psychological effects. Go to a mall or some place where teenagers/early college age kids congregate. Odds are most of them won’t be talking. They’re staring at their phones.

          This shift in the way we communicate doesn’t allow for emotional clarity or closeness, either. A text message is words on a screen. You don’t get the benefit of facial expressions, body language, or even change in pitch of voice with a text.

          We could be raising a generation incapable of understanding what human emotions look like without realizing it.

        2. Mark Bennett

          I love the weeds.

          Teenage prefrontal cortex is still developing.
          Orbital prefrontal cortex determines number of stable relationships we can have (D ≅ 150 in adult).
          Phone-and-face only limited the number of people that we could attempt relationships with.
          Social media forces teenagers to attempt many more relationships than D.
          Prefrontal cortex (also responsible for impulse control and decision making) is stressed.
          Boom.

    2. CLS

      I get that it’s speculative, but once you see the issue in real life it’s hard to not think our technological interactions with others has a negative impact on how we treat people.

      Look around you and see how many people are engrossed with their phones instead of paying attention to their immediate surroundings. You’ll see people pushing shopping carts with kids in them into oncoming traffic because they have to answer that next text message, oblivious to their surroundings.

      And we didn’t have to educate our kids on the issues of cyberbullying, “Facebook depression,” and other nonsense when kids had the option of talking to their classmates face to face or over a telephone.

      I think there’s a case to be made digital communication methods dehumanize us.

      1. SHG

        When my kids were teens, I appreciated that they could not get or make anyone pregnant on social media. Now that I want grandchildren, I see the situation differently.

  2. Mike Guenther

    I believe you hit the nail on the head, Chris. I remember when our daughter brought a WebTV console home in 1998. Her mother told her to get it out her house. She said the internet was the Devil’s playground and nothing good could come of it.

    It’s 20 years later and although the wife doesn’t do social media, she’s as addicted to the WWW as anyone else. ( It’s where she gets all her quilt patterns from.)

  3. Peter Miles

    The CDC reports that 6% of US adolescents took prescribed psychotropic medication in the last month. This could be a bigger factor than computers and cell phones. It is known that prozac, for example, can sometimes lead to violent behavior. The developmental effects of all these drugs for ADHD, depression, etc, are unknown, because there is no ethical way of conducting controlled studies. In 20 or 30 years, neuroscience will have advanced, effects of drugs will be modeled reliably, someone will finally assess what has been done to this generation. Maybe they will know how to pick up the pieces.

  4. st

    I’m not aware of any high-quality studies on the issue, but numerous commentators have noted that a very high fraction of school shooters were on SSRIs. Correlation is not causation, but this does suggest a possible area of inquiry.

    A Swedish team (no link per rules) published on article on PLOS.
    Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors and Violent Crime: A Cohort Study

    They looked at the correlation of SSRIs and convictions for violent crimes. While there was no significant correlation for the entire population, they found
    “With age stratification, there was a significant association between SSRIs and violent crime convictions for individuals aged 15 to 24 y.”

    The study showed that the rate of convictions for violent crime was twice as high among SSRI consumers. Suicidal and violent ideation are well known side effects of many SSRIs.

    In 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a black box warning — the agency’s strictest warning — for all selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) antidepressants regarding their association with suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

    That warning was updated in 2007, with the FDA specifying that the risk is highest for young adults ages 18 to 24. Children under 18 are also at risk.

    Clinical studies found no significant increase of suicide among adults older than 24 and a decrease in suicidal thoughts among adults 65 and older.

    The fact that school shootings are so rare suggests that a confluence of several factors may be required to push a young man over the edge. Social media could be one, SSRIs another, the feminization and mass drugging of boys still another.

      1. Paul

        You should phone him up and talk to him, or do you want to turn him into a school shooter with your evil emoji ways!

    1. that david from Oz

      As someone who failed psychiatry in med school (through lack of attendance; drugs are bad. mkay) but got the highest marks in my year in the written and viva exam, I say with some authority, that psychiatry is a field sadly lacking in reproducibility and actual scientific anaylsis.
      Its just as likely (yes, I read the study) that the reason those “criminal” kids were on SSRIs was because they needed to be, and were actually underdosed . . . you could use the same information in that study to say that we should be adding SSRIs to the water in high schools . . .
      _ducks the brick thrown by the Admiral_

  5. Guitardave

    You should seriously look into “blue light toxicity” …it causes low dopamine. This is NOT web-med-wu-wu. Its very real, and depending on other things…diet, sun exposure, haplotype ,etc. …you can end up very, VERY depressed, and angry. Thing is, it takes years (5-10 i think) before it does sufficient damage to your mtDNA, and fucks up your dopamine, malatonin, and many other hormones. Too much screen time and not enough sun….I know, it sounds too simple.
    Now I know correlation does not mean causation, but it IS a signpost…..10 yrs since smartphone saturation and were in the worst suicide epidemic ever…?
    (Scott, please, please, PLEASE don’t edit these guys name out, i’m NOT putting in a link). There’s a neurosurgeon named Dr. Jack Krause…hes kind of a smart ass ( kinda reminds me of a certain blawger ..probably why i like him)…but following some of his protocols (it AIN’T easy) got me off a really bad road. 3-4 years ago there wasn’t a day went by i didn’t think about offing myself , or worse. Doing some of the stuff he recommends worked. I got my life back….no health ins or fluorine based brain drugs required.

    …which brings us back to the school shooter thing….anti-depressants. The correlations are thru the roof. These drugs fuck with all your hormones and if you forget to take them, or stop taking them and don’t wean your self off them correctly, they cause…..that’s right, severe low dopamine. Don’t take my word for it, as I am NOT a health care practitioner, and this is NOT medical advice, but do check out the site of Dr. David Healy or Dr. Peter R. Breggin….or google: SSRI stories, you will see.

    So your half right on this one, my friend…..the phones are part of the problem, but i think the social aspect is secondary to the primary physical/medical aspect. This ain’t tinfoil hat shit. Big pharma and the telecom’s don’t give a fuck about you or your kids, so do the research, someones life may depend on it.
    Thank you….I’ll put my little soap box away now. (Scott, I understand if you edit this little missive out, after all this is YOUR soapbox. I don’t like getting “personal” but this post hit damn close to home, and i just had to”go there”…..so do what you must, but please do check out the guys i mentioned for yourself, even if you shit-can the comment, thanks, GD)

    1. SHG

      {Whispers: the post about about lack of telephone contact, not about random problems with kids or why shooters shoot.]

      1. Guitardave

        I did see this question, early in the post….
        “…over the cause of so much gun violence in schools: what if social media was part of the problem?”
        …that one pushed a button…so i ( and others) spoke to that question…so, yeah…

        I did think about telling you what its like to make a conscious choice to NOT own a cell phone…(smart or flip, so, no texting)….and in spite of the fact that i work at home, AND my #’s listed in the phone book…. (Daddy, whats a phone book?….is it like an i-pad?) ….and how that made me a ghost to the thumb talkers…..but its all too damn depressing. I used to enjoy a good long, ear flattening phone chat….hell, now i start feeling bad if i talk to someone who’s using a cell for more than a couple minutes….i start thinking about their future brain tumor I’m helping feed…oy!…or worse yet, they put it on speaker and don’t tell you…and it’s no longer a “private” conversation….and you say something that the wrong person hears and….need i go on?

  6. Anonymous Coward

    Some of the motivation for spree killing is a simple desire for 15 minutes of fame, which is certainly driven by pervasive news media and social media. If you’re 17 years old and want your name and face at the top of everyone’s news feed, the options are generally, be an Olympic athlete, be a pop star, or shoot up your school. Guess which path to fame is the easiest.

    1. SHG

      Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis The Wise? I thought not. It’s not a story the Jedi would tell you.

  7. phv3773

    I’m dubious that social media is an issue. Profiles of schools shooters tend more to the under-socialized and under-connected than the opposite. On the other hand, the internet itself may play a role. Birds of feather nest together on the internet, and you can find reinforcement for whatever anti-social notions you may harbor.

    1. CLS

      While you may be “dubious” about the issue, you’re kind of making my point. The fact the shooter’s profile shows them as “under-socialized and under-connected” means they’ve withdrawn to the point they don’t see their peers as more than real life avatars.

      And when you’re a kid who sees the world as a collection of real life avatars instead of human beings with families, it’s awfully easy to pick up a gun and “delete” the avatars that say things you don’t like.

  8. Ben Prytherch

    A couple of counter-arguments:

    1. Older people behave terribly on the internet. If you read the comments on a random news article, the least reasonable person is as likely to be a retiree as a college student.

    2. School shooting rates started trending upwards before cell phones became dominant. I’ve heard some people blame the 24 news cycle, which also seems plausible. Or just the fact that once you put the idea of “someone going into a public place and randomly killing people is something that sometimes happens” idea in the heads of all 300+ million people in the country, it shouldn’t be surprising that a small percentage of us decide to take it up. An extremely small percentage X 300 million = a big number. Monkey see, monkey do?

  9. Anthony

    i have 1 small work-around to the texting problem. Replace your contacts’ names with their phone #. This forces you to re-aquaint yourself with the conversation before continuing & commit phone numbers to memory. Baby steps onto the elevator…

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