Is social media a convenient scapegoat?

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.”

Photo Credit

Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty

Writer and chief of miscellany at
I'm the guy that wrote the article you just read. Sorry for the typos.
  • Ellen Bremen

    Jim, first of all, thank you for mentioning me in this piece. I just left my 11 a.m. class and told them how my first reading of their papers, which required a three-day social media/texting fast and a scholarly position on the social media and communication, has affected me. How worried I am for the future, for my 9 year-old, for our world (not to be dramatic… but it is true).

    After reading these 40+ student papers (two classes, actually), written by a cross-section of 16-year-olds through 30-something’s, parents, singles–students across all spans of the economic stratus, including an international model who has returned to college–I am telling you, I had not realized what an even larger problem we have with social media, connection and communication. The latter has the potential to deteriorate at a far faster rate than I imagined.

    Quinn is absolutely correct in his assessment about the human connection piece, though it is true that mental illness is a discrete issue. I also think that if violent crime is down, it is down. Next year, it could be up. I think that is a separate issue from social media.

    Maybe Quinn knows something about his teammate that isn’t being shared? Even students who perceived that they are very committed to maintaining deep social connections to others didn’t realize that the quality was somewhat affected until their “fast.” So in this case, I would agree with Quinn that, yes, if we keep going in this direction and find some balance with our social media habits (because what else is distracting us? It’s not bowling…), there are costs. Maybe not the exact costs that Quinn alluded to–or sometimes, those are possible–but costs, nonetheless.

    • jimdougherty

      Thank you Professor Bremen for your comments! I mentioned you and Professor Turkle because I think that there is a lot of merit to studying and identifying the behaviors that are truly affected by social media.

      Maybe in another circumstance Quinn would be correct, but he was implying that murder could be deterred by deeper social connections and there’s little likelihood that’s correct.

      Of course you know my feelings about your book “Say This Not That To Your College Professor” – I think it has application and value far beyond academia. And if your concerns for the future prove correct, my hope is that you’ll continue to be a prominent advocate for self-awareness and better interpersonal communication.

  • ginavalley

    Very well done piece. I am so glad you covered this.
    I think there tends to be a trend toward ignoring the bad behaviors that results from choices made by individuals under the fog of mental illnesses. It seems as though we as a society want to blame something easier to fix. Social media is an easy scapegoat.

    Solving the problems of mental illness are much more complicated. Diagnosis, treatment, outcomes, consequences are all difficult to deal with. It is so much easier to say, “If we all stop with the electronics, everything will be fine.” I don’t think that is true.

    In fact, I think that in some ways we are more connected to other people in that we meet people through social media that we would not otherwise, as well as receiving extra communication from those we know. Also, social media is another way for people to send out signals that they need help.

    There simply are no easy answers to the question of why someone chooses to take someone’s life, including his own. It is a tragedy, no matter what the cause.

  • Carol Lynn Rivera

    This is a really thoughtful and level look at social media and how it can affect us. I think that there is a case to be made for both sides of the argument: namely, that social media (or technology in general) is changing how we communicate and interact, in some ways for the worse; however, it is not causally responsible for crime or tragedy any more than telephones are, or guns are, or baseballs bats are. People will use the means available to them to act out their behaviors and the nearest “logical” cause to explain those behaviors.

    We have a natural tendency to want to explain away a tragedy. We want to know what caused it, find the scapegoat and then feel confident that we can stop it from happening to us. If we attribute someone’s mental problems to social media, or to the fact that people were so busy on social media that they weren’t paying attention, then we can absolve ourselves – that’s not me! I can prevent that. There’s a way out.

    That behavior is never going to go away! I do think, however, that social media and technology are making us in many ways less social. Texting/Facebooking/Messaging someone doesn’t take near the amount of social effort and grace as sitting in a room working your way through silences, stutters and whatever else. 20 years ago, my family would have opened our front door and had coffee with the neighbors. Now we just wave from the driveway as we head off looking at our phones so we can get in the house and shut the door without being bothered.

    To that extent, I think we do need to relearn how to actually engage with people, not people-via-gadgets. And we need to be aware of the dangers and challenges of our world. There are realities distinct to the emergence of social media/technology – a whole new swath of addictions, anxieties and more. Every change brings its challenges and how we deal with those will be the measure of our continued existence on this planet!