Last week, Jovan Belcher a professional (American) football player murdered his fiancee and then committed suicide in front of his coach. It was a tragic event that his teammates and fans understandably had a very difficult time dealing with.
Brady Quinn (the team quarterback) talked with reporters after their next game, expressing his regret that he didn’t see his teammate’s problems earlier and intervene. He made an impassioned plea for people to look up from their phones and to connect with the people around them. He was lauded by many for his statement, but I disagree.
Scapegoating social media users to explain violent criminal behavior and mental illness is unfair. And it’s a false causal relationship that is cited far too often to explain the inexplicable.
Is a singular experience indicative of the big picture?
Sally Struther’s appeals for Christian Children’s Fund were noted for their focus on the individual children rather than the big picture of hunger in African countries. They were also noted for being exceptionally successful campaigns. It turns out that personal situations affect us much more.
When faced with a very personal experience of violence, suicide and mental illness, it may make sense to try to think that a personal intervention may have been possible. It may seem plausible that our communication through social networks have dulled our intuition for people’s pain. But this simply isn’t true.
Violent crime in the U.S. has decreased significantly nearly every year since 1990. There is no correlation between the advent of social networks and violent crime. Without correlation there is close to zero chance of causation, disproving the thought that social media causes us to miss intervention opportunities.
Also of note is research showing that even medical intervention isn’t effective to prevent suicide, and that 90% of people who commit suicide have underlying mental illness. Intervention by a work colleague probably couldn’t have prevented this tragedy.
Why Quinn’s statement resonated for people
I suspect that Quinn’s statement affirmed many people’s observation that social media has fundamentally changed how we interact with one another. Shelly Turkle has written and spoken extensively about the behavioral shift that social media has caused for people in their interpersonal relationships and for their self-image. Ellen Bremen has written and spoken about how social networks have manifest themselves in the classroom degrading the student-teacher relationship.
Attributing societal problems to social networks makes a lot of sense to us. After all, we see that people are texting and posting and tweeting and pinning at the expense of more traditional communication. And we know that there are ramifications to these behaviors. Turkle and Bremen are probably only scratching the surface of how technology is changing how we behave and how we interact with our environment.
These observations have to be made pragmatically, though. Blaming tragic situations on our social habits diminishes the value of social networks, so statements like Quinn’s need to be examined with more than a cursory nod.
Social media isn’t bad. Social media is a vehicle that changes our communication, probably at the expense of traditional communication. But to say that social media has changed our communication is not to say that the changes cause anything else.
Events as reprehensible and abhorrent as murder and suicide occur. And we try to make sense of the irrational. But what led that football player to murder his girlfriend and kill himself had nothing to do with the quality of his relationships, of a lack of intervention, or his anonymity in an era of social networks. It had to do with a lifetime of experiences that we’ll never fully understand and most likely some undiagnosed mental illness.
Painting a picture of a dismissive society obliviously tweeting and texting trivializes a tragedy like this. It diminishes the value of social networks and obscures the true reason that this event happened.
What do you think? Is social media culture to blame? If so, how do you explain a decrease in violent behavior during social media’s ascent?
Here is Quinn’s complete statement:
“The one thing people can hopefully try to take away, I guess, is the relationships they have with people. I know when it happened, I was sitting and, in my head, thinking what I could have done differently. When you ask someone how they are doing, do you really mean it? When you answer someone back how you are doing, are you really telling the truth?
We live in a society of social networks, with Twitter pages and Facebook, and that’s fine, but we have contact with our work associates, our family, our friends, and it seems like half the time we are more preoccupied with our phone and other things going on instead of the actual relationships that we have right in front of us. Hopefully, people can learn from this and try to actually help if someone is battling something deeper on the inside than what they are revealing on a day-to-day basis.”