Just the other day I was listening to Prince Harry delivering a speech at the 21st International AIDS Conference held in Durban, South Africa. With other celebrity speakers alongside him, including Elton John and Charlize Theron, he urged countries and communities to empower their youth. What does that even mean, I thought. Empower to do what? To take selfies all day? To bully and trample the person next to him? To torture animals? To murder other kids? To gang-rape because the woman “deserved” it?
The courtrooms are filled with teens
These examples may sound outlandish and extreme, but there are plenty of instances in the daily news. Most of us don’t even blink anymore. The courtrooms are filled with teens and young adults who have killed their parents, friends, partners, and strangers for money, revenge, or fun. Without much of a second thought, it seems, as anyone close to them had barely seen any signs beforehand, they walk into a movie theater, a bar, or drive along city streets, shooting and killing people at will.
He took to the street and killed seven strangers
When 22-year-old student Elliot Rodger bought three handguns and posted more than 20 video logs in which he wanders or drives alone through Santa Barbara in his BMW, complaining about life’s unfairness and that girls don’t want him despite his status and appeal nobody thought much of it. His depictions became more graphic and threatening as time went by. His YouTube account that garnered hundreds of thousands of viewers was started on July 23, 2012, almost two years before he took his firearms to the streets of the small college community in Isla Vista, killing seven people, including himself, and injuring 14 others.
Social media fueled his self-obsession
During these two years, no one reacted or dug a little deeper into an increasingly disturbed soul while he continued his tirades against society for denying him his essential rights of being admired and privileged, not for what he did, but for what he thought he was. The growing numbers of faceless viewers likely fueled his self-aggrandizing beliefs, alienating him further from the real world of flesh and blood.
His online persona took over and evolved into an unstoppable force of revenge and embitterment. Social media helped him develop his self-aggrandizement to the point where it could no longer be reconciled with reality. It became an unendurable stress. He broke. And killed seven innocent bystanders. While the world stood by, glued to their TV screens for their daily dose of entertainment. Until something else comes along. And it always does.
The worst mass shooting in history
Omar Mateen was a 29-year-old Muslim American married with a 3-year-old son when he entered the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida on June 12, 2016, armed with a pistol and semi-automatic rifle. Just more than 20 minutes later he started shooting. After an almost 3-hour hostage drama and gunfight, police shot Mateen dead. During this time, 49 people died, and 53 were injured. Most media accounts were torn between terrorism or an LGBT hate crime as the reason.
Did social media have had anything to do with it?
There is evidence that Mateen frequented the nightclub before, interacted with other patrons, and had been a member of a gay online dating service. Although he pledged his sympathy and allegiance to the Islamic State in Facebook entries and during 911 calls made on that fateful night, his sexual orientation likely caused deep internal distress as it is strongly condemned by his faith. Whatever the case may be, Mateen used social media to post selfies and even visited Facebook during the attack to see if news about it was going viral and posted status updates.
Personality beliefs in conflict with reality
Is this yet another example of how social media helps to create an illusion of personality beliefs that are in conflict with reality? Elliot Rodger had a wealthy and famous father and while Mateen’s family was not as well-to-do, they were described as an all-American family by those who knew them. His father, an “outsize” personality in their Florida town’s Afghan community, donated generously to their mosque.
Empowered and entitled
So, by all indications these two men were empowered from a young age. Both had narcissistic features and intermittent anger issues. However, despite (or perhaps because of) their high expectations, they struggled to fit in, to reconcile their dreams with reality. Basically, they wanted all for nothing. They felt entitled to the privileges and freedom that they denied their fellow man. In an if-I-can’t-have-it-nobody-can act, both chose a way out that would also, even in death, ensure that they are not forgotten.
Is social media partly to blame?
Many authors and experts have pointed out that narcissism has been increasing, especially among young people, to the point where it can be considered an epidemic. The thing about narcissism is that it is like an internal addiction that feeds on the approval and admiration of others. Social media is the ideal platform create an illusion of personal meaning and value. It acts as an efficient equalizer in today’s world. Rewards and recognition are not linked to achievement. Everyone has an equal voice. Laymen debate with professionals. Radicals with moderates. Conflict hawks with pacifists.
Information is awash in a sea of nonsense
Although many claim that such diversity in communication improves knowledge and understanding, there is more evidence to the contrary. Genuine information is awash in a sea of nonsense, of self-serving deception. Nobody truly listens anymore. But the delusion that participants are important and valuable is craftily created by the developers. Everyone can follow and comment on celebrities and high-profile people. Some get a new sense of identity as a result. Sometimes they are masterfully steered for another’s benefit, but often, they just drift away into a narcissistic illusion where expectations clash with reality. What an unsustainable position for a young person!
So, I repeat my initial question: Empowering youth is a noble idea, but it begs the question, for what purpose and to whose benefit? Surely, the inherent dangers of creating an environment where narcissism and mob mentality flourishes outweigh the potential benefits in many ways.