Violent, terrifying videos of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida are all over the internet.
The use of social media and other websites in disaster situations is an increasingly important topic of discussion among policymakers, aid organizations, and mental health professionals.
But to some, the fact that Florida high school students were able to take out their phones and tweet, call, or film while an active shooter roamed the halls of their school — in some cases sending bullets whizzing by — is concerning.
With lives on the line, should students, or anyone, take out a phone, and get on social media?
The explanation isn’t simple by any means.
The first part of that answer is a technologic one.
Young people today not only have better access to smartphones, cameras, and high-speed internet, but their daily routines and habits are also more strongly interwoven with these personal technologies than ever before.
“The whole world for them is on video,” Elaine Ducharme, PhD, a clinical psychologist, told Healthline, “Their whole lives are documented.”
“Kids are way more comfortable doing it [filming video] than we ever would have been. And, they have the means to do it,” she added.
Nancy Molitor, PhD, another clinical psychologist, likens use of social media in disaster situations to how individuals would have scrambled to find a phone to call 911 in the past.
In short, social media has become this generation’s most expedient cry for help.
That isn’t mere conjecture either.
Using social media in disasters
Researchers, law enforcement, and policy organizations have all turned to social media as a means to identify disasters, spread information about them, and speed responses.
The Red Cross has a 30-plus page document entitled “Social Media and Disasters: Best Practices and Lessons Learned” that informs readers about different ways social media has been used in life-or-death scenarios, including hurricanes and bombings.
It also attempts to provide guidelines for ways in which technology can be used most safely and effectively in these situations.
Research published in October examined data from 3.8 million tweets related to disaster events to see if trends could be used to notify hospitals of mass casualty events.
But, perhaps the more impactful question is, what does social media mean for individuals actively experiencing a crisis situation and can it be used safely.
Filming in Florida
“Even though this was a situation where they felt in jeopardy, they would use this media to number one document it, but also to reach out for comfort and for help and for ideas about what to do, and also as a way of letting their loved ones know they were OK,” said Molitor.
From the many screenshots of text messages and tweets between students at the Florida shooting and family members, the use of these mediums for comfort and information spreading was prolific.
Yet, despite the many ways that social media can be utilized for good — by police and family members, for example — there is still a risk involved as well, particularly for those in danger.
“When you’re in an extreme situation like this, you can’t multitask very efficiently,” Molitor told Healthline. “Be mindful of why you are using it. Be clear: Is this something that is going to be helpful to you?”
It is hard to predict how individuals will react in a crisis. Reaching out to others, be it family or law enforcement, may be natural or comforting, but it should not be distracting.
“You have to use that higher level of your brain to really make some split-second decisions, and if you are too busy focusing on staying connected or streaming something, then of course you aren’t going to be able to multitask, or to remember, or you’re not going to pay attention to what someone is shouting at you,” said Molitor.
What’s the motive?
This is perhaps where public policy, training, and social media can come together for the best possible outcome in a disaster scenario.
With aid organizations such as the Red Cross already examining social media best practices, could such a reference be effectively implemented with other mass casualty safety precautions?
Molitor questions the narrative that young people merely reach for their phones out of habit. Instead, she asks whether filming these videos is not an active and intentioned decision meant to shock, inform, and, for those that did not survive, even act as a final testament.
“I don’t think they were just grabbing for the phone because it’s what they do,” she said.
“The one positive is that you are doing something. You don’t know if anybody is even going to see it, but there is a legacy, you’re doing something. In the act of doing that, you are making a conscious choice that this is more important in this moment than my potential survival,” she said.