Juan Campos has spent 16 years rescuing teens at risk of gun violence.
As a street worker in Oakland, California, he saw the strength and power of gangs. It also provides support to teens as they exit juvenile justice, advocates for them in school, and helps them find housing, mental health, and substance abuse treatment when needed.
However, he said he had never come face to face with a force as powerful as social media, where petty bragging and arguments online can escalate into deadly violence in schoolyards and street corners.
Teens post photos or videos of themselves with guns and piles of cash, sometimes calling for competition, on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or TikTok. Campos stated that when news spreads virally, fueled by "likes" and comments, it's hard to control the danger.
“There are hundreds of people on social media, and only one or two people are trying to guide the youth in a positive way,” he said. Sometimes his warnings are harsh and he tells children, "I want to keep you alive." But as he said, "it doesn't always work."
Shamari Martin Jr. he was an outgoing 14-year-old who respected his teachers in Oakland. Interspersed with videos of friends laughing on his Instagram were pictures of Shamari casually brandishing a gun or fanning money in front of his face. In March 2022, he was shot when the car he was riding in received a barrage of bullets. his bodystayed on the streetHe was pronounced dead by the paramedics who arrived at the scene.
In Shamari's neighborhood, kids join gangs as young as 9 or 10 and sometimes carry guns to elementary school, said Tonyia "Nina" Carter, an anti-violence activist who knew Shamari and who works with Youth Alive, which works to end violence to prevent. Carter stated that Shamari was "somewhat connected to this culture" of gangs and guns.
Shamari's friends expressed their grief on Instagram with broken heart emoticons and comments like "I love you brother, my heart hurts."
One message was more ominous: "It's blood in the water, all we want is revenge." The rivals posted videos of them digging flowers and candles at the Shamari memorial.
Oona Tempest/KFF health news
Oona Tempest/KFF health news
Such online expressions of grief often presage additional violence, says Desmond Patton, a University of Pennsylvania professor who studies social media and gun violence.
More than a year later, Shamari's death remains unsolved. But it's still a touchy subject in Oakland, according to Bernice Grisby, a counselor at the East Bay Asian Youth Center who works with gang-related youth.
"There's still a lot of gang violence around his name," she said. “It could be as simple as someone saying, 'Forget him or spank him,' it could be a death sentence. Being associated with his name in any way could mean your death."
US surgeon general last monthissued a call to actionon the debilitating impact of social media on the mental health of children and young people, warning of a “high risk of harm” for young people who may use their phones for many hours a day. The 25-page report highlights the risks of cyberbullying and sexual exploitation. The role of social media in the escalation of gun violence was not mentioned.
Investigators, community leaders and police across the country are well aware of this role, including in policingBaltimore,Chicago,Angels,Oakland,Pittsburgh,St Louis, IWashington.They describe social media as a constant driver of gun violence.
Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore called the impact "dramatic."
“What used to be communicated on the street, with graffiti, tags or rumors passed from one person to another, is now spread and amplified on social media,” he said. "It is intended to embarrass and humiliate others."
Many disputesstem from a perceived disrespectamong insecure young adults who may lack impulse control and conflict management skills, says LJ Punch, trauma surgeon and directorBullet injury clinic in St. Lodewijk.
“Social media is an incredibly powerful tool for spreading disrespect,” said Punch. Of all the causes of gun violence, the grudge fueled through social media is “the most impenetrable.”
It calls for regulation
“If you allow a video to be recorded that leads to a shooting, you are responsible for what you put out there,” said Fred Fogg, national director of violence prevention at Youth Advocate Programs, a group that offers alternatives to prison for minors. "Social media is addictive, and on purpose."
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The truth about teens, social media and the mental health crisis
People are finding that social media can be especially harmful in gun violence-prone communities.
"Social media companies need to be better regulated to make sure they don't encourage violence in black communities," said Jabari Evans, an assistant professor of race and media at the University of South Carolina.
However, he said social media companies should also help "remove the structural racism" that puts many black youth "in circumstances that give up the desire to join gangs, carry guns to school or focus on violent individuals to draw attention back to yourself'.
Los Angeles-based Moore described social media companies as “playing a reactionary role. They are profit oriented. They don't want controls or restrictions that would suppress advertising."
say social media companiesdelete contentwho violate their policiesthreaten othersLubencouraging violenceas soon as possible. In a statement, YouTube spokesperson Jack Malon said the company "prohibits content that mocks or mocks the death or serious injury of an identifiable person."
Social media companies say yesprotect the safety of its usersespecially children.
Rachel Hamrick, a spokeswoman for Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, said the company has spent about $16 billion over the past seven years protecting the safety of people who post on its apps, and that there are 40,000 security breaches. and security people on Facebook are employed.
“We remove content, ban accounts and cooperate with law enforcement if we believe there is a real risk of bodily harm or an imminent threat to public safety,” said Hamrick. “As a company, we have all the commercial and moral incentives to give as many people as possible a positive experience on Facebook. That's why we take steps to protect people, even if it impacts our bottom line."
metaplatformsgenerated revenueover $116 billion by 2022, most of which will come from advertising.
Snapchat spokesperson Pete Boogaard said the company removes violent content within minutes of notification. However, as Fogg pointed out, hundreds of people may have seen the video before the video was taken down.
But even critics admit that the sheer amount of content on social media is hard to control. Facebook has nearly 3 billion monthly users worldwide; YouTube hasnearly 2.7 billion users; Instagram has 2 billion. If a company closes one account, you can just open a new one, says Tara Dabney, director of the Chicago Non-Violence Institute.
"It can be great in the community," Fogg said, "and then something happens on social media and people shoot each other."
Playing with fire
In a time when practicalevery teenager has a mobile phone, a lot ofhave access to weaponsand many domental and emotional crises,Some say it's not surprising that violence is so pervasive on children's social media.
High school "fight pages" are trending on social media right now, with teens quick to record and share fights as soon as they break out.
“Social media is betting everything on steroids,” said Rev. Cornell Jones, Pittsburgh group violence intervention coordinator.
Like adults, many young people feel valued when their posts are liked and shared, Jones said.
"We're dealing with young people who don't have much self-esteem, and the 'love' they get on social media can partially fill that void," Jones said. "But it could end up getting shot or going to jail."
While many teens today are tech-savvy and can shoot and edit professional-looking videos, they remain naive about the consequences of posting violent content, says Evans of the University of South Carolina.
The Los Angeles Police Department is now monitoring social media for early signs of trouble, Moore said. Police also search social media afterwards to collect evidence against those involved in the violence.
“People want publicity,” Moore said, “but apparently they get itimply myselfand gives us an easy way to bring them to justice."
In February, New Jersey police used a video recording of a 14-year-old girl being brutally beaten at schoolfile criminal chargesagainst four teenagers. The victim of the attack, Adriana Kuch, committed suicide two days after the video went viral.
Preventing another tragedy
Glen Upshaw, who leads counselors at Youth Alive in Oakland, says he encourages teens to express their anger in his presence, not on social media. It absorbs it, he said, to prevent kids from doing something stupid.
"I've always given young people the chance to call me and curse me," Upshaw said. "They can come screaming and I won't interfere."
Youth advocacy program employeesmonitor influential social media accountsin their communities to de-escalate conflicts. "It's about getting this done as quickly as possible," Fogg said. "We don't want people to die because of a social media post."
Sometimes that's impossible, Campos said. "You can't tell them to delete their social media accounts," he said. "Even the judge won't tell them that. But I can say to them, "If I were you, because you're on parole, I wouldn't be posting stuff like this."
When he first worked with teens at risk of violence, "I said if I could save 10 lives out of 100, I'd be happy," Campos said. "If I can save one in a hundred lives now, I'll be happy."
KFF health news, formerly known as Kaiser Health News (KHN), is a national newsroom that writes in-depth journalism on health issues and is one of its main operating programsKFF– an independent resource for health policy research, polling and journalism.
Illustrations: Oona Tempest, KFF Health News.