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“Everyone’s life has background music these days, have you noticed that?” a friend complained about an Instagram trend. “Thousands of people are dying, and these people need Aurora’s Runaway to pose to? How insensitive can they get?” she fumed. My friend is still recovering from COVID-19, self-isolating at her home with her ageing parents in West Bengal. In the past few days, she has substantially cut back her social media visitations. “It used to be an involuntary habit. I would click on Facebook or Instagram at least ten times a day, without even realising it. But nowadays, I am more conscious of what I consume. It’s all too close to home now, and when I read about someone desperately looking for oxygen, medicine or a hospital bed or scroll through many SOS messages, I know that any minute now, that could be me. I want to empathise, but all I feel is a wave of fear washing over me. I breathe louder sometimes to hear myself breathe as if I need proof that I’m still alive,” she added.

The COVID-19 pandemic will go down in history as the first major crisis in human civilisation during which the masses had the power to tell their own stories — of helplessness, grief, desperation, isolation, sufferings, losses, as well as resilience, endurance and courage — through the social media. Previously, we had to rely on ‘official accounts’, great writers, anthropologists, and sociologists to document such monumental crises, but none of those compares to the personal accounts that are flooding our social media timelines these days.

“As our healthcare sector struggles to hold it together, and the number of deaths and those affected by COVID-19 grows exponentially, it has become increasingly obvious that the only place where our voices will be heard and amplified is social media. So, it should come as no surprise that for any lead on available beds, or plasma donation, people are going to Twitter or Instagram,” said Mriganka Sen, a 30-year-old Delhi resident.

“I know of friends who have been helped immensely, in their hour of greatest need, by strangers. These acts of kindness still make you hope, not give up on humanity completely. But I have also sat for hours, calling numbers on lists shared on social media which either don’t exist or were fake and did not lead me to the injection that a friend’s father desperately needed,” she said.

Sen said that it is a dangerous thing when the display of compassion becomes a trend on social media. “I want to believe that most people who are relentlessly sharing COVID-19 resource details have the best intention at heart, and they want to help. But, even help has to be offered responsibly,” she said.

“When someone’s loved one is in danger, and they are running from pillar to post to get them the fundamental treatment that they should have had access to in the first place, the last thing they want is to go through a list of fake numbers. It’s cruel to put them through that. So, if you want to help so much, why don’t you make a call to the number you are sharing and verify it before putting it on social media? “she asked.

In the past year, our social media has mirrored our society in the most vivid, real and sometimes frightening ways. Like in real life, compassion, consideration, and a general sense of civic responsibility have been lacking in the online space as well.

Gujarat based sociologist, Gaurang Jani, told News18, “COVID-19 is our first shared experience of a crisis of this magnitude, so obviously there is a thread of commonality that we find in so many personal experiences shared online these days. I feel in social media we truly get a sense of shared loss and isolation that we as Indians have experienced in the past year and are still living through.”

“However, since we have already witness covid closely, and many have even lived through it, a frightening trend that we have seen is that now many think they can speak with authority on scientific and medical issues in regards to this virus. This generates a lot of misinformation, and for all the good that social media has done, it has also been a conduit of much wrong information about health,” he added.

Social media has always been about keeping up appearances, but during COVID times, these appearances worked together to create a dangerous narrative. “As soon as the lockdown opened up, there were many who recklessly travelled for leisure, people threw lavish wedding parties violating Covid protocols and they shared each moment of these experiences on social media. All these things collectively signalled that the pandemic was over, even though it was far from the truth, and that’s the reason we are in the midst of such a severe second wave,” he explained.

*Sneha Sharma, a media professional living in Mumbai, said that she deleted her Facebook account after seeing her cousin throwing a big birthday bash for himself post lockdown. “He had just recovered from COVID-19 at the time, and his symptoms were severe too. Therefore, he had to be hospitalised. So, when I saw him streaming his birthday party just a few days later, I could not make sense of his actions. Sadly, it isn’t just him whose behaviour has been irresponsible,” said Sharma.

Sharma has been in and out of several bio bubbles in the past months for outdoor filming schedules, recovered from a bout of COVID-19 and has done everything in her power to protect her family during this time. ‘I have intentionally not returned home because I do not want to put my parents at risk. I would not be able to live with the guilt if my parents were put in harm’s way because of me. Therefore, I find it extremely disconcerting to see on social media that some people are just going about their business, pretending as if COVID doesn’t even exist,” she pointed out.

Millions share Sharma’s bafflement in India, and that is why we have been witnessing a lot of calling out whenever people, administration or institutions are behaving callously.

“There is a range of very complex emotions that people are feeling, especially after the second wave. There is definitely rage and anger against those who are not following protocols. We have seen more calling out in the recent weeks. Videos of people’s irresponsible behaviours are being shared; if someone posts wedding photos, they are being called out for being reckless,” pointed out Priyanka Varma, a Mumbai based psychologist.

In the past year, our lives, as well as the way we use social media, has changed drastically. From the initial euphoria of banana breads, Dalgona coffee, dance reels and cooking videos during lockdown to the endless streams of messages about lost loved ones, pain, suffering and final goodbyes, social media has been the dashboard of it all. It is the only shared space where we can still pour our very complex emotions, which we ourselves are still struggling to make sense of during this crisis. So, given the current situation, judgement should give way to understanding and compassion, said Varma.

For instance, it must be very tempting to post a vaccination selfie, and perhaps it is vital to encourage others on our timeline to get vaccinated. But, the decision to do so should not be taken without consideration for those whose parents did not live long enough to get vaccinated. There are expecting mothers who share every moment of their pregnancy, amateur chefs who finally have the time to cook, and while the overshare might get excessive sometimes, one should always try to understand why people are behaving this way.

“Previously, giving birth was a celebrated occasion, with at least ten family members standing outside the delivery room. But, in the past year, every woman who has given birth has been terrifyingly alone during this transition. It is a life-changing event, and with no one to share or witness it, it is natural to question if it has really happened or not. There is a lack of human connection, so many women try to find that connection through social media. Therefore, while it may seem odd to you that a woman might want to share every minute of her journey towards motherhood, especially at a time with so many are losing their loved ones, you will have to understand where she is coming from,” explained Varma.

For many of us, social media is the only compensation for the lack of human connections in the real world during this health crisis, and it serves as a great substitute. However, sometimes, it can be an overwhelming space to navigate.

Poulami Mukhopadhyay, a 33-year-old Mumbai resident, said that during the pandemic, Facebook especially has become too difficult to endure.

“It is full of oversharing. Why would people want to put so much of their personal lives online anyway? Even influencers do that on Instagram, but they have a clear purpose of content generation. It, however, irritates me to see so many on my timeline constantly bombarding us with images of evening tea, a play session with kids, and what they cooked for dinner,” said Mukhopadhyay

“Instagram is still tolerable because you can customise the content, just watch reels and videos, and even if for a brief second escape the darkness of present-day reality,” she added.

Social media has its own unique allure, pointed out Dr Harish Shetty, psychiatrist at Dr L Hiranandani hospital. “It allows people to express themselves and connect with their loved ones in innovative ways. However, if one is not wary, it can be rather addictive. I think that is when the oversharing starts, when an individual begins living their life online.”

Shetty, however, pointed out that social media is not all bad, and it is definitely not evil. “During the pandemic, as many dealt with chronic isolation, alienation and loneliness when the conversation at home was sporadic, many people turned to strangers online for appreciation, attention and affection,” he explained.

“This health crisis also gave us the unique opportunity to discover those who are low, depressed or suffering from mental health issues. There had also been cases where police had deciphered social media posts and stopped people from taking an extreme step,” he added.

Natasha Mehta, a Mumbai based senior counselling psychologist, explained that during the pandemic, social media was perhaps one of those few outlets where people could satiate their psychological needs.

“Studies have shown that when our psychological needs of validation, connectedness and self-esteem are met, our body releases the feel-good hormones like dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin etc. Our social connection boosts these hormones in our systems. So, in the absence of real social connections, people desperately started looking for social media connections and found that they too can generate the same feeling of happiness,” said Mehta.

With each new social media notification, people’s brains immediately started sending a signal and released dopamine along the reward pathways, making people momentously happy, which is why they started craving it more and therefore started sharing more on social media. However, Mehta explained that it isn’t real oxytocin that is released when we feel good about our social media connections.

“I would say that this is counterfeit oxytocin; it isn’t the real deal because although it gives you momentary happiness, it doesn’t satisfy you because it isn’t natural. Therefore, a vicious cycle gets created, and you do not know when you get sucked into the cycle, and it starts gulping down your time and effort, your space and your understanding of the reality around you,” added Mehta.

In an interview with News18, Mehta also addressed the overshadow of grief on social media. “With each passing day, we see more posts about loss and grief on social media and for those who find the sheer volume of such posts to be crushing should avoid social media for a while.”

Mehta pointed out that we as a society will have to allow people who have lost so much to grieve and mourn in the way they choose. If they wish to express their grief on social media, and that brings them some sense of relief or makes them feel connected to their friends and family, who cannot be by their side at the moment, then as a society, we should make space for them to grieve.

“However, sometimes these posts about deaths can be something to hide behind and avoid addressing the real feeling of loss. It is hard to accept loss, so it is normal for people to want to avoid uncomfortable emotions or sit with their own grief, but it has to be done too. Not everything can be done on social media. All of us will have to sit down with the loss, and sadness that we are feeling right now. We cannot begin to heal otherwise,” she explained.

*a name has been changed at the request of the interviewee.

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