In the aftermath of the recent Paris terror attacks, Facebook introduced the feature of superimposing the French flag on one’s profile picture. Anyone wishing to display his or her solidarity and grief with the nation could choose this option. While many debates surrounding this feature have been political (such as why Facebook had not provided the same feature with the Lebanese flag symbolising the Beirut bombings), the thought that came to my mind was how social media had become, amongst other things (like displaying solidarity), an acceptable platform to grieve.
A study conducted in 2010, found that Facebook and MySpace users were more likely to visit the page of a recently deceased individual, immediately after learning of their death, than otherwise. More interestingly, the study also found that visitation continued much longer after death. Such behaviour highlights the cemetery-like feature that social media networks imbibe; users are given a memorial site for the dead, where they can go to pay their respects via writing posts or sharing pictures, and thereby mourn death within a cyber community setting. In fact, Facebook has even begun memorialising profiles of deceased individuals, thus creating a cyber grave.
But does engaging in such an intimate and private behaviour on such a wide public platform help users? Research shows that one of the most striking findings in this area has been that while many friends view the profile of a deceased person or visit their memorial page, a very small percentage actually interact visibly with the deceased or others on such pages (either through posts, likes, comments or messages). However, all individuals in the study indicated finding support and peace by simply reading what others had written, regardless of their own level of interaction. For the same reason, very few expressed their desire to ‘de-friend’ the deceased individual, finding comfort in having a visible bond much after the death of their friend. Thus, the Facebook profile becomes a unique way of coping with the death of a friend or loved one.
Social media is transforming the way that we mourn, both for the grievers as well as sympathisers. On a positive front, it allows a community to come together, and openly communicate their support and lend their shoulders; this has enabled individuals to both transform their capacities to comfort the grieving, and also set up an environment allowing the bereaved to express themselves completely. While it has been found that receiving social support does not necessarily aid in the recovery process in the aftermath of death, it does decrease the depressive symptoms that follow suit. Overall, this might help an individual in overcoming the death of their loved one.
More interestingly, research is now focused on understanding the differences between online and offline grieving. It is unsurprising to note that the online grieving process could follow the same path as traditional grief models. For instance, online grieving normalises the grief experience and allows individuals to work through the pain of losing their loved one. Another more important process is that it enables individuals to forge a continuing bond with the deceased, which traditional grief models suggest as being one of the most important steps of the grieving process. However, it may also lead to people to getting stuck in a virtual reality; the deceased may become immortal in the cyber world, which may then affect the living’s ability to accept the reality of their death.
Some might argue that though online grieving helps, it remains largely impersonal and superficial due to the lack of personal interaction, thus defeating the purpose of providing support. Others argue that exposing yourself to the internet at such a vulnerable time might draw the flak of anonymous users, through trolls and abuses, thus creating an environment opposite to the one required to grieve. A specific problem related to memorialising Facebook profiles is that it might contain content that causes distress to family and loved ones; particularly in sensitive cases such as if the deceased individual has been the victim of violence. For example, the English media recently reported that a young woman’s memorialised Facebook profile contained pictures of her and her boyfriend (who had murdered her), which deeply disturbed her family members. However, when they requested Facebook executives to remove such content, they were refused on grounds that the individual’s profile had been frozen, and could no longer be amended. This made it difficult for the family to move on and gain closure. Such limitations remain a reality of the Internet world, but it is important to note that the benefits of online grieving might sometimes be more powerful than the negatives.
More research is still required to completely understand the ways in which grieving through social media helps people. In the same way that people share their happiness through social networks, so also are they beginning to express their grief. With Twitter announcing their intention to improve their policies with regards to handling death and tragic situations, the onus now lies on social networking sites to adapt their services to facilitate the psychologically healthy expression and experience of grief. Needless to say, thanks to social media, the way that society mourns the loss of the dead, continues and will continue to evolve.