Some stories are very hard to read. Yesterday’s edition of The Guardian contained one such. Written by Christina Patterson it opens with a terrible tale about a young woman who was attacked with a knife as she left work. In Patterson’s words
Paramedics tried, but they couldn’t save her. People passing stared, as they always stare when tragedies unfold in front of their eyes. When there’s screaming, and crying, and blood flowing as a life ebbs away, it’s hard not to. But some of them didn’t just stare. They whipped out their phones and videoed it.
Patterson goes on to say
…..in most places, at most times, watching people die has been something for a special occasion. It hasn’t been an opportunity to increase your Twitter following, or get Facebook likes. It hasn’t been something to flick to as a break from email.
Journalists, and especially photo and film journalists have had to struggle with the ethics of portraying death and violence for many years but this isn’t the main point of The Guardian article. At the heart of it are four pieces of research: one is from the Kaiser Foundation. They look at the lives of 8-18 year old Americans. Seemingly young people are spending, on average, 7 hours and 38 minutes per day using entertainment media. Presumably that’s code for the internet and social networks although that is not entirely clear.
Next comes Howard Gardner of Harvard and digital media expert Katie Davis. They recently published The App Generation. In it they tell us young people spend
80% of their time on social media talking about themselves.
Tongue in cheek Patterson suggests eighty per cent is quite a lot. But she goes on to say
If it’s 80%, you’ve got to call it narcissism……narcissism on a sociopathic scale.
The third piece of evidence cited comes from psychologist Sara Konrath who looked at the capacity of American college students to feel empathy. You wouldn’t have thought it possible to measure something like that but apparently you can. And empathy levels are going down. The drop has been sharpest in the past ten years. That rings a bell.
Finally, also on this vital empathy point, a study by psychologists at the New York School of Social Research showed that reading literary fiction helps us develop it. But guess what? We are all spending more time online (see above) and reading less of everything.
Can we tie these disparate pieces of research together and reach definite conclusions about what’s going on in the UK? Probably not but if there is a connection it could help explain why someone might think it was OK to film another person bleeding to death on the side of the street.
I see these studies more as straws in the wind. Gradually we are starting to get a clearer, more rounded idea of the broader consequences of the emergence of the internet both for us as individuals and for society as a whole. I am not sure we are going to like everything we will discover but at least once we know we will be able to decide what, if anything, can and should be done about it.