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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  The Texas school shooting raises big questions beyond America
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The Texas school shooting raises big questions beyond America

All educational institutions and social media platforms must ponder their complicity in the tragedy

Children hold signs and photos of the Uvalde, Texas school shooting victims during a rally at Discovery Green Park (Photo: AP)Premium
Children hold signs and photos of the Uvalde, Texas school shooting victims during a rally at Discovery Green Park (Photo: AP)

The Texas school shooting draws into focus disturbing aspects of privacy versus security and the ethical responsibilities of social media companies in an age of instant messages and borderless communication.

The Texas school shooter, Salvador Ramos, had been in touch with a German teenager through social media and had revealed disturbing aspects of his personality even before the event. Ramos is reported to have used social media extensively before threatening sexual violence and school shootings. His messages about “throwing dead cats at people’s houses", informing the teenager of ammunition he had bought the day before the shooting, and having shot his own grandmother a day later raise questions at multiple levels.

At one level is the problematic issue of social media addiction among impressionable pre-teens and teenagers and the responsibility of stakeholder groups associated with this age group. Social media use and the ‘likes’ and comments generated by posts have been shown to impact the brain the same way that good food, sex and drug abuse do, inducing the release of dopamine. Over time, it is almost as if a dopamine treadmill gets generated, with more of it having to be released to keep the user at the same state as previously.

Experts also refer to an associated dopamine deficit syndrome, where a vast deviation upwards is followed by an equal or greater deviation downwards, pushing dopamine below the baseline and making the person unhappy. This external social media-induced mental see-saw is responsible for many mental health issues, especially among teenagers. Several studies have attested to the adverse effects of social media as leading to depression, anxiety, aggression and anti-social behaviour in this age group, besides an increasing association with the risk of suicide.

The Texas shooter, a teenager himself, has had a history of bullying and being bullied at the school he chose to attack. He is reported to have had a “minor" argument with his grandmother over paying a phone bill before he shot her. He then proceeded to brag about his “achievement" in a private message to the German teenager, also indicating that he was set to undertake the school shootings. His prior public postings had been equally explicit and yet had not been taken seriously. One can only imagine the emotional scars the German teenager who interacted with the shooter may carry for life.

The question arises: Could this have been prevented? Schools and colleges play a vital role in shaping youngsters. There needs to be strict norms against bullying and ragging in any form, with educational institutions using trained professionals who can identify and counsel children with mental health issues. They should also invest in training pre-teens and teenagers to spot disturbing social media behaviour. Youngsters would need to learn what to report, when and to whom in such cases.

The Texas shooting and social media posts reminded me of a situation when a student in an institution where I used to teach had put up 52 posts on social media indicating that he was contemplating suicide. While his classmates dismissed it as yet another instance of his attention-seeking behaviour, one vigilant student brought it to our attention and sought institutional help.

The Texas shooting also raises serious questions of the ethical responsibilities of social media and digital platform firms like Facebook, Instagram, Yubo, Apple, Google, etc. While the role of Facebook in pre-empting direct messages sent out by the shooter and bringing them to the attention of authorities is being debated, there is news that its parent company, Meta, plans to roll out end-to-end encryption for the messaging systems of Facebook and Instagram next year. This will make it impossible to decipher messages that carry a threat to human life and national security, even as they enhance consumer privacy.

Platform companies enjoy significant network effects and have the power to monetize such effects through large advertisement revenues. Such revenues have brought such firms into the limelight for the wrong reasons and resulted in demands to monitor and regulate them. For instance, Apple’s end-to-end encryption on its iPhone ran into problems with the US Justice Department when it was asked for a back-door to a handset seized from an alleged terrorist.

However, social media companies have a perverse interest in keeping people engaged on their platforms longer. In 2021, Meta generated $114.9 billion in ad revenue, up 36.5% over the previous year. More than 97.9% of Facebook’s global revenue was from ads, which explains its importance to Meta.

Yes, US gun laws need debate. However, educational institutions and social media companies are equally complicit in the horrible tragedy that unfolded, snuffing out young lives. It is time that platform companies look at the sustainability of business models that exploit the addictive nature of such platforms, especially among impressionable minds, for narrow commercial interests. At the same time, educational institutions need to make student communities more robust, responsible and responsive. The Texas school shooting is a wake-up call for society in general, not just legal authorities in an American state.

Tulsi Jayakumar is professor of economics and executive director, Centre for Family Business & Entrepreneurship, Bhavan’s SPJIMR

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Published: 30 May 2022, 11:09 PM IST
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