There’s Something Rotten In…

From the desk of Dr. Gross…

I consider myself a well-trained mental health professional and as such an expert on human behavior. These days however, I find myself more and more at a loss pondering the amount of violence and hate visible in our world. This week I attended an interfaith vigil united to protest hate crimes and violence. It was uplifting to share in the community expression of mutual support, love and the need to heal. However, I left feeling that there still were no answers to the existence of such evil.

What motivates individuals to slaughter innocent people in “soft targets” like schools, theaters or houses of worship? Could it be genes at play? Family of origin pathology? Traumatic life situations? It is too simplistic to blame such behavior on a psychiatric disorder. Instead, I believe that we need to more closely example the societal influence that could spawn such tragic community events.

There appear to be some common factors among such violent individuals. They tend to be loners, self-absorbed, isolated, emotionally empty and socially estranged. They wrestle with an absence of self-worth and meaningfulness. Their antisocial actions often represent a rageful attempt to make a political point or express unmitigated bigotry. These are individuals who for the most part feel marginalized by society.

Emile Durkheim was a French social scientist who many believe was the father of modern sociology. Towards the end of the 19th century he was concerned about the prevalence of completed suicides in Paris. His carefully designed research uncovered some basic components inherent in these tragic events. He coined the term anomie that describes the sense of namelessness, lack of belonging and loss of identity often present in these individuals.

It is my belief that similar factors can be found in the murderous actions of the perpetrators of hate crimes. In many respects, the personality factors that create the self hate and negativity can be redirected outwards to others, whether it be religious beliefs, skin color or political ideology. The net result is violent acting out and tragic loss of life.

Trying to tackle the problem of preventing the development of such individuals may be an almost impossible task. However, I am most concerned about a societal development that has contributed to this process. I am referring to the explosive intrusion of social media and the internet. Don’t get me wrong, there are numerous societal benefits of the internet and social networks. But there is a major downside and that is what I would like to clarify.

Social media has contributed to the development of anomie in many of its participants primarily because of the degree to which it interferes with natural face to face social interactions. Teens are losing the natural ability to maintain eye contact due to their preoccupation with screen contact. Group social interplay suffers as well. Sure, one will sees group of teens together but they are often preoccupied with their phone screens. To make matters worse, as I have written in the past, the wanton spread of traumatic life events on all  aspects of media has profound impact on the psychological health of its innocent witnesses. We all know what it is like to watch the news on television, non-stop mayhem, murder and expressions of negative like events. When was the last time that you saw a program devoted primarily to positive heart-warming news or life events? Daily exposure to such negative stimulation does have an impact on our psyche and can lead to what I have labeled media- related post traumatic stress disorder.

So what is one to do? I think that it is beholden on parents to limit screen time of all kinds and promote exposure to healthy and emotionally uplifting media experiences. It is time to reinforce the value of books. Family mealtime should be for conversation and not for watching the screen. Screen preoccupation in restaurants should become restricted. We need to educate parents about the negative impact of social media addiction. To be successful, grown-ups must also recognize that they are vulnerable to the pathological effects of negative media exposure and therefore need to adjust their behavior as well.

I know this is a tall order. But I truly believe that in the 21st century this is a major societal challenge that cannot be ignore. Thank you for taking the time to read this commentary.

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