We’ve known for a long time now that an excess of social media can be detrimental to one’s mental health. It can even modify our behavior, making us less efficient and less happy overall. The types of engagement encouraged by the algorithms that run most major social media sites are not always positive. In fact, negative opinions are commonplace in social media. Posts that are controversial often spark excessive engagement in comments or retweets as people bicker over the latest celebrity scandal or an unfolding global news story. Due to these algorithms, it can often feel impossible to escape the negativity. On top of that, social media is designed to stop you from escaping it—your brain releases small hits of dopamine, a feel-good chemical, when you see notifications on your phone. It can truly become a cycle that leads to anger, despair, and inappropriate behavior, including violence.
Though our brains may seek this kind of attention, there is also the risk of it all going wrong. Many people want to go viral online, but when it’s unexpected it can very quickly become an onerous burden. In 2021, TikTok was overtaken by a viral video of “Couch Guy”, when Lauren Zarras posted a video of herself surprising her long-distance boyfriend. The boyfriend quickly got the Couch Guy nickname and was accused of cheating on his girlfriend, all because of how other users perceived his behavior in a short video. Soon, both parties found they couldn’t escape the comments and even, in some cases, the real-life harassment that followed. I could recite far worse examples.
If there is any doubt about the capacity of social media to reprogram your brain, view a video – the Selfish Ledger – allegedly from Google posted in 2018. I also explore the phenomena in my novel, Dark Data: Control, Alt Delete. While the story is fictional, the reality it represents is not.
It’s clear that social media can lead to negative effects in someone’s real life, up to and including violence. Sometimes, this violence can be extreme—there is evidence that the January 6th, 2021 attack on the Capitol was built up and propagated via social media. And it seems, the further one digs into the topic, the easier it is to confirm that this is something that regular users of social media are well aware of. For adolescents (the demographics that spends the most time on social media), “social media isn’t just mirroring conflicts happening in schools and on streets—it’s intensifying and triggering new conflicts.” Caitlin Elsaesser, an Associate Professor at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work, studies the relation between social media and how it causes and escalates offline violence. In her research, she’s found that it isn’t uncommon for young people to use the internet to taunt or argue with their peers either on an individual basis or as part of a clique or gang. The most cited features of social media that are used to escalate violence are comments, picture/video sharing, tagging, and even livestreaming. Of those four features, comments are involved in 80% of violent events that were incited via social media.
Livestreaming is a feature that is now present on many social media platforms. Creators can go Live on TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram to name a few. Elsaesser found many case studies among children that involved live broadcasts of physical fights between adolescents. Not only are these fights often encouraged by followers—usually real-life friends of those involved in the fight—but children report that it’s difficult to back out of them once they’ve started. The peer pressure to follow through on threats can also be a contributing factor to escalating violence. Within the past decade, the rise of violence on social media has become such a rampant issue that the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City put out a packet meant to educate parents and children on effectively de-escalating and remaining safe on social media.
While the 2015 Citizens Crime Commission’s paper is perhaps a bit outdated given the pace of social media, the general best-practices recommended in the paper remain valuable. It is a great resource for anyone currently experiencing harassment through social media or anyone who wishes to take preventative measures.
Perhaps the best advice is to remember that if 80% of violent incidents involve or start in the comments section, it might be best to stay out of the argument altogether. In truth, while it might hurt your ego, your opinion isn’t that important and certainly of no value if it incites inappropriate communications or behavior. You never know where it might lead.