No, this is not a joke in very bad taste, much as I wish it were. In addition to being an absurd American tragedy, the story of Alexandra V. Tobias and her infant son Dylan Lee Edmondson, will doubtless provoke more warnings and laments about social ills "caused" by social media. But as in other cases this blames social media for basic human failings, like being evil.
Tobias has just entered a guilty plea for second-degree murder in the death of her three-month-old son in January. It seems that Tobias, age 22, lost her temper when her child began crying while she was playing FarmVille on Facebook; she shook the baby once, smoked a cigarette to try to calm down, then shook the baby a second time, during which time he may have hit his head, according to her guilty plea.
Obviously this is a terrible story all round, and I can almost hear media columnists all over the Web gearing up to highlight the social media angle. But once again, I feel obliged to take the non-controversial, less interesting, and possibly more depressing stance that social media's role in this tragedy is peripheral and incidental. The real problem is human nature. Get ready for a cavalcade of depressing statistics.
First of all, this particular kind of child abuse is common enough to have a name, Shaken Baby Syndrome, which results in severe head trauma for about 1,300 infants and about 300 infant deaths in the United States each year, according to a study by the University of North Carolina. There is even a non-profit advocacy organization, the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome based in Ogden, UT. According to the center's Web site (http://www.dontshake.org/) SBS almost always results from young, inexperienced parents confronting babies who won't stop crying; violent shaking causes the brain to rotate in the skull cavity, resulting in bleeding, tissue damage and sometimes death.
Needless to say SBS has been around a lot longer than social media, and can occur in all kinds of different scenarios -- but the basic trigger is almost always the same: the baby won't stop crying (pediatricians say parents who fear they might lose control should leave the crying baby in its crib and go somewhere else to cool off; the baby will be okay on its own for a while and it's much safer than the alternative).
The other all-too-human aspect of this story is the addictive behavior displayed by Tobias in playing FarmVille. But while social media addiction in particular may be novel, addictive behavior in general is nothing new. In fact, a number of recent studies have compared social media addiction to chemical dependency, to the point of inducing symptoms of withdrawal when users are deprived of their fix. It's interesting to note that Tobias combined her social media addiction with chemical addiction in the form of tobacco. Of course, almost anything can become the basis of an addiction: addiction has as much to do with how an individual's brain is wired as the qualities of the addictive substance or activity. According to psychologist Stuart Fischoff, "Everyone is a potential addict -- they're just waiting for their drug of choice to come along, whether heroin, running, junk food or social media."