In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech University shootings, researcher Tamara Wandel immediately met with survivors and college students across the country to talk about the tragedy. This was the first shooting at a college campus where news of the event reached people via Facebook faster than traditional media, producing a high number of online groups where young people expressed grief and support for the victims and their families. This was also the first time Wandel really grasped the unique value that social media can play during such distressing times.
She saw it again when her own daughter lost a friend in an ATV accident in 2015. “I was an observer of how children and teens use Facebook and Instagram for hurt and hope in tough times. I ended up interviewing people of all ages close to the situation and also local, regional, and national experts on bereavement issues,” Wandel, who is a professor of communications at Evansville University in Indiana, says.
The average American millennial visits Facebook multiple times a day (this continues to be true despite last year’s data breach and subsequent wave of anti-Facebook sentiment). Researchers are only just beginning to scratch the surface to study how this phenomenon can transform the way we grieve, and whether social media adds meaningful value to helping us deal with a loss. There are tributes to people’s deceased loved ones on Instagram and Snapchat as well, but Facebook’s particular format—and the fact that among the various platforms it lends itself best to memorializing a deceased person—has made it the focus of the research.
Can Facebook transform traditional notions of remembering the deceased and of “moving on”? This is a question that researchers have been keen to address given what a universal experience grief is and how many people use social media on a daily basis. Of course, dedicated online support groups to connect strangers who have gone through similar experiences of death have long existed. However, social media brings a new dimension to this by connecting people with a community of peers that also knew the person and with whom they can share memories. This connection, research suggests, could help reduce the anguish people often feel after a loss.
In 2010, a study found that in both the aftermath of the 2007 Virginia Tech and 2008 Northern Illinois University shootings, many students said that the fact they belonged to Facebook groups and could talk openly about the tragedy on those platforms with their “friends” was an important source of temporary relief.
In this context, Facebook’s virtual memorials represent one of the cornerstones of these online grieving experiences. Up until May 2007, Facebook’s policy was to delete profiles of the deceased. This changed after the removal of Virginia Tech victims’ profile sparked online protests and a letter campaign. “People close to the subject were in shock, understandably, but they were also upset that Facebook had taken down the victim’s profiles," Wandel says. "It was their virtual memory wall, so Facebook postings mattered to these people because it was the only thing they could cling to in a desperate time."
In 2015 research, scientists highlighted the mental health benefits of using these memorials, showing that above all, these positive effects can result from the fact that people are kept virtually alive through their online identity, and through friends coming together to make sense of their life and death. Many of the study participants also said they used social media to "talk" to the deceased and found comfort in that.
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But grief is complex, and its manifestations vary widely from one individual to the next. Traditional models to make sense of grief have theorized that there are different steps to the process, but the reality is that there is no linear, universal way of mourning. Death remains a taboo topic and talking about it openly can be difficult. Having conversations on social media, research indicates, can free people of some of the inhibitions that they otherwise feel when opening up about their loss.
In a recent book chapter based on a qualitative study with 198 teenagers who had lost a friend, Wandel highlighted how, for these young people who often struggle to express what they feel, posting on social media allowed them to break certain taboos surrounding death, to process their emotions, and to find meaning in the death shortly after it happens. Six months to one year after the death, as they were wading through the different phases of bereavement, the teens also found social media helpful to express more positive thoughts and happy memories.
Researchers are also starting to agree to look at how these platforms could present an opportunity to identify those individuals who are particularly distressed by the death of the person they loved, who may go on to develop mental health issues, by scanning their posts and paying attention to their language and to the ideas they may not express in real life.
However, as research on the topic progresses, studies have also sought to underscore the limits of social media use in the grieving process. “Grieving via social media accounts is not recommended as a sole source of processing or grieving, given that it can have many pitfalls of its own," says Erin Hope Thompson, clinical psychologist and founding director of The Loss Foundation, a UK-based charity that provides bereavement support for people who have lost a loved one to cancer. "Some of the most important risks are that people may lose interest after a while and some accounts may close down, all of which can act as another loss for the relatives of the deceased."
Paradoxically, if social media can bring people together after a death, it can also create heightened feelings of isolation, alienation, and anger in some individuals. “Some of the people I interviewed were angered by people who acted closer to the deceased than they originally were, or felt misunderstood or forgotten. And while it’s good to share your pain with friends who care, they often don't know how to react, so relying only on this could be damaging to your emotional state,” Wandel says.
Thompson agrees. A general issue with social media is that people tend to share only the aspects they want others to see. In the context of grief, this is problematic because it serves the unhelpful belief that other people are happier or dealing better with the death. “This can be extremely disheartening and can exacerbate feelings of isolation, which is a serious risk factor for all sorts of mental health problems and even death,” she adds.
Despite those shortcomings, it’s difficult to deny the role that social media plays during emotional hardships and grief. The bottom line is that this use needs to happen as part of comprehensive bereavement support, which includes, in some cases, talking to professionals.
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