9/11 grieving in the social media era

Sunday marks the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and our keyboards, monitors and smartphones will likely play a big role as we commemorate the events. Numerous remembrance websites and videos already appear online, and people will undoubtedly take to Facebook and Twitter over the weekend to share their personal stories and express their thoughts on that tragic day.

Never before have we been so “plugged in,” and I had to wonder how effective – and appropriate – it is for people to use social media to express their grief and work out their feelings. To find out, I turned to Stanford psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude, MD, an expert on the psychological effects of Internet usage and author of the recent book Virtually You: the Dangerous Power of the E-Personality.

As more and more people share more and more of their lives online, is it a natural progression that individuals would also use social media in the grieving process?

The entire range of feelings, from happiness to anger to love to grief, can find an outlet online. When it comes to personal loss, some people already use social media to announce the death of a loved one, and some websites specialize in helping friends help grieving families with their practical day to day needs (preparing meals, taking the kids to school, etc.). Therefore, it is only natural that we would use social media to help us grieve as well. The challenge is to avoid the tendency, online, to speed up and dumb down whatever we are engaged in. Grieving is complex and difficult, and it takes time, and if it feels simple, easy or more efficient online, then maybe we are diminishing the process somehow.

How might 9/11 remembrance videos and websites help their creators – and viewers – emotionally process what happened ten years ago?

We all remember where we were when the Twin Towers fell, but visual documents help us relive the tragedy more viscerally than we would if we relied on memory alone. Vividly revisiting this watershed moment, such as with the help of video footage, may help us better access the emotions we experienced and how far we have, or have not, come since then.

In what ways does a mass, public sharing of thoughts on 9/11 help us heal?

Much has happened since 9/11: several costly wars, natural disasters on a cosmic scale, and a devastating recession. It seems like 9/11 inaugurated a prolonged period of anxiety and loss and opened us up to feelings of vulnerability that may have been foreign to us before 9/11. Any serious, civilized discussion, online or off, of the last decade, and any attempt at processing what we have been through as a country, would have to be good.

Is there any downside to collectively commemorating 9/11 and other tragic events?  

People with post-traumatic stress disorder often avoid reminders of the trauma they survived. To different degrees, we are all traumatized by 9/11, but I don’t think avoidance is the answer. I believe there is a way to commemorate what happened without getting stuck in the past. Closure is not about never looking back again. It’s about learning from what we went through in hopes of a better future.

Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other social media sites didn’t exist on 9/11. If they had, how might they have affected the country’s healing process in the weeks and months following the tragedy?

It is hard to say. Our attention span has shrunken since then. Our patience for one dominant story, regardless of how tragic or massive, is not what it used to be. We live in a more restless, faster-paced world now, and I wonder whether we would have had a harder time “staying in the moment” and giving the event the full attention and intense soul searching it deserved.

Elias Aboujaoude is a psychiatrist and author of Virtually You: the Dangerous Power of the E-Personality. This article originally appeared in Scope.

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