Social Media Is Not The Cause of Youth Violence – But It Can Be The Solution

August 17, 2023
Posted by: Peter Friedman, Founder, Chairman & CEO

On August 8, 2023, an Atlantic and ProPublica article by Alec MacGillis was published and stated that social media could be fueling youth homicides. Today, I’d like to respond to that with a different point of view.

The article covers an important subject and raises many good points. However, I do have some issues with the piece. I have 35+ years of experience in online community and social media, have overseen more than 3 million hours of moderation and engagement, managed hundreds of brand social media programs, and developed expertise in youth use of the medium. This experience has taught me that social media can function to intensify or enhance behavior. But it is not the cause of bad behavior. While social can certainly reinforce, intensify, and as the author says, “accelerate” behaviors, it is not usually the cause. Additionally, it’s important to note that the same dynamics that can enable social media to intensify bad behavior can also be harnessed to support and intensify good behavior. This includes overcoming youth violence.

Regardless of the author’s individual examples, it’s quite a stretch to place the blame for youth violence on social media when there are so many other obvious and overwhelming factors. In fairness, the article does point out that social was around before the most recent violence escalation and that it is not a singular cause. Still, I take issue with how much burden the author puts on social media. I do agree it can be one factor that makes the situation worse, just as it can be a factor to make the situation better.

History shows it’s not because of social media

For many decades, we’ve seen youth violence and homicides rise and fall. The ’70s and ‘90s were witness to rises that included a strong gang element. Social media didn’t even exist then. Who’s to say the causes and drivers from those time periods are not the same fueling the rise in the past few years?

As the article itself points out, such crime and violence was in decline pre-pandemic, rose during and right after the pandemic, and is now declining again. Social media was present throughout this entire period. If we’re going to jump to the conclusion that social media drove the rise in youth homicides, we might as well conclude that social media drove the same behavior’s decline before the pandemic and now after.

What we really need to do is to look at what changed and if that had causal effects.  What changed was the arrival of the pandemic and its well-documented impact on crime and violence, including gang shootings. The article notes some Covid-caused disruptions, uproar following the George Floyd murder, and rise in gun sales. But the pandemic’s impacts run far deeper and wider. Its effects include anxiety, depression,

and isolation from others at school or work because of lockdowns. Gang economics likely took a hit along with every other part of society and tensions built there too.

None of this is to say that social media doesn’t play a role. It surely does – both negative and positive. To understand what’s happening we must look at the underlying nature of social media and how it affects behavior. We cannot just correlate it and assume causal effects.

How social media influences behavior

The core dynamic of social media is conversations and relationships. When people converse, brain chemistry creates emotional feelings.  These can develop into a sense of bonding and trust, which then turn into loyalty and can build a sense of tribal belonging. The Christakis and Fowler Harvard Medical School study and their subsequent book, “Connected The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives” demonstrated that human social networking can cause behaviors to cascade to other people.  That is, behaviors are contagious.

Another Harvard Medical School study found positive impacts of social media when used properly in relation to three positive health outcomes social well-being, positive mental health, and self-rated health.

“We found that routine social media use—for example, using social media as part of everyday routine and responding to content that others share—is positively associated with all three health outcomes.   …… as long as we are mindful users, routine use may not in itself be a problem. Indeed, it could be beneficial……  For those with unhealthy social media use, behavioral interventions may help.”

Studies usually show that social networking can be used to reinforce positive or negative behaviors.

This being the case, gangs who choose to reinforce their tribal intensity and create violent outcomes by organizing and managing their tribe via social media. Anyone prone to it can seek out or create trouble on social media, in keeping with the MacGillis’ discussion of people escalating animosity.

A social media solution

The author notes that experts on the front line see social as a big factor but are at a loss as to what to do. The answer is right in front of them. It’s social media.

Communities in the physical world have worked to overcome youth violence with group youth programs, mentoring, community outreach, coordination, and building trust with local police. Social can be used for these same ends. Create online venues and groups for teens to participate in and become part of tribes with positive values and positive community participation. Include mentors, local community institutions, and police partnership. In social media we can provide referent examples of and teach how to de-escalate rather than escalate in social, how to turn arguments into conversations, and how to socialize with the community using positive relationships.  All  instead of self-radicalizing in an isolated context.

Indeed, these techniques used on social media can also influence real-world behavior.  The story in the article about the Reverend Cornell Jones bringing people together to diffuse a situation is a good real-world example. This can be done online as well. Properly leveraged, such approaches can be used even better via social media with its 24/7 coverage, ability to reach more people, and potential to reach otherwise inaccessible people who are in troubling and isolated circumstances.

A broader effort

Before we can effectively pursue these social media solutions, we first need the realization that it can be done. Then, we need support and coordination with schools, parents, community institutions, local police, government agencies, and of course, the social networks themselves. (See my articles and eBooks for more information on what the social networks and government can do.)

Peter Friedman is the founder & CEO of LiveWorld, the longest standing social media-related company in the world. LiveWorld is a digital-social media agency, moderation, and software company. Founded in 1996, today LiveWorld creates digital marketing programs and manages social media presence for global brands through a combination of creative, moderation and engagement, and software technology. Mr. Friedman has overseen the management of hundreds of brand social media programs and over 3 million hours of moderation and engagement. He is the author of numerous articles as well as the books “The CMO’s Social Media Handbook” and “Is Privacy Dead in the Digital Age and What to Do About It”. Prior to founding LiveWorld, he was the Vice President & General Manager of Apple’s Internet Services division.