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Turn on your phone and open the first social media app you see. How many minutes does it take for you to find a vicious or insensitive comment?

While it is well known that social media can be unhealthy,there has not been enough discussion. There should be a larger focus on social media’s powerful influence over younger generations and society as a whole. What does this mean for us?

“Many observers have noted that communication has become coarser in the social media era, and that some platforms, such as Twitter, encourage a kind of snarkiness and combativeness that’s at odds with the way most strangers interact in-person and offline,” Katie Day Good, Associate Professor of Media, Journalism and Film at Miami University and co-founder of Little Tech, said.

Little Tech is an educational consultancy in digital literacy and wellbeing.

In this social media age, harassment and mockery over differences between people has become more prevalent and normalized. As Good emphasized, it’s so easy to not think twice about leaving a malicious comment under someone’s post when every other person is doing the exact same thing. 

Marissa Abbatiello, a teenager who uses social media, believes that hatred and a lack of empathy is common, especially on TikTok.

“I see tons of toxicity and violence on [TikTok] and I think it’s making people a lot more aggressive, especially if someone has a different belief than you,” Abbatiello said. “If they don’t [like] your belief, even if the belief isn’t harming them, they will literally burn you at the stake.”

Part of the reason people are so comfortable with making these comments Abbatiello described is because of the fact that this often has no real life impact. Anonymity makes it extremely easy for people to say things they wouldn’t otherwise say. Even without anonymity, confrontation is more convenient when you know you won’t ever see these people face to face. You can bash people from the comfort of your own home.

Another cause of desensitized social media users, according to Good, is because of the validation social media provides. 

“The platforms are designed to elicit users’ “engagement”—their likes, clicks, comments, and page views,” Good said. “Content that is surprising or interesting gets more engagement, and that can sometimes lead platforms to elevate posts that contain misinformation, conflict between users, or ideologically extreme content.” 

A prime example of this attention driven cruelty is online personality Logan Paul and his role in prank and shock culture. Paul who rose to prominence on YouTube with a younger following due to his outrageous content and prank videos. 

On December 31, 2017, Paul uploaded a video onto YouTube where he walks through Japan’s Aokigahara Forest, also known as the Aokigahara Suicide Forest. In the video, Paul, his friends, and his production staff come across the dead body of a person who committed suicide. Paul proceeds to laugh and make jokes about the victim while his team films. The video amassed six million views until he took it down. On January 2, 2018, he posted a less than two minute apology video that has garnered over 60 million views and 1.7 million likes. 

Whether Paul changed for the better or didn’t learn anything from his mistakes is up for discussion, but this incident shines a light on a very important issue. The fact that he even contemplated posting the video is frightening. Just how far will people go to go viral? 

The spread of violence or disturbing images isn’t unique to YouTube. Other websites like Twitter or Instagram make it extremely easy to find accounts dedicated to sharing videos of violence, ranging from videos of people getting into fights or videos containing gore and snuff. On Twitter for instance, with one simple keyword typed into the search bar videos of people getting shot and run over by cars is a tap away. 

“We prohibit gratuitous gore content because research has shown that repeated exposure to violent content online may negatively impact an individual’s wellbeing,” Twitter’s “Sensitive Media Policy” states. “For these reasons, you can’t share images or videos that depict violent sexual conduct or gratuitous gore on Twitter.”

If this is true, then why is this very same content so easy to find on the website? 

Widely broadcasted tragedies and flurries of online chatter following these events is also at the center of desensitizing young people to violence, said Destini Humphrey, a young adult who occasionally uses social media. Humphrey spoke about the mental exhaustion and lack of shock she experiences after news of major tragedies surfaces online.  

“I feel that social media always displays tragedies and I have begun to lack emotion when I see tragedies because I am so used to the stories being presented in all forms,” Humphrey said. “Seeing tragedies on social media constantly has made me feel numb.”

So what do we do about this? 

Good noted some key solutions could include requiring social media companies to enforce and institute stronger age restrictions, root out disinformation and fake accounts, and prioritize protecting user safety in their product designs. She added that governments can try to require and push for “more robust” social media literacy education offerings in schools. Families, workplaces, and communities can also set cultural limits on social media, according to Good. This could include limiting device use during meals, at work, and in schools.

“Society will have to find a balance in how it incorporates social media into daily life,” said Good. 

A Pew Research Center study published in August found that almost all U.S. teens, roughly 97%, report using the internet daily.