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What was Pope Francis smoking when he declared the Internet “a gift from God”? Had he not witnessed the sticky little fingers of Lucifer all over New Zealand’s social media these past few months?
First was Roast Busters, where young men were accused of getting teenage girls drunk, raping them and posting bragging videos on Facebook. Then there was the very sad case of a drunk 9-year-old being filmed and shamed on YouTube. More recently was the global phenomenon of #neknominate, essentially a pyramid-scheme type of drinking game played across social media (thought to have originated in Australia; thanks guys). And there’s the perennial “out-of-control Facebook parties” making headline news and prompting political promises to outlaw this behaviour.
Clearly, the behaviours on display in each of these cases were shocking and cannot be condoned. But I was also disturbed by the wailing and gnashing of teeth of those public health commentators who too quickly laid blame at the feet of social media. Some commentators appeared naively unaware that this sort of behaviour existed before Facebook and YouTube. And many of them spoke fearfully about social media and of the need to control it. In the case of promoting parties via Facebook (because before social media, young people didn’t know how to advertise their parties, right?) some states in Australia have already outlawed the practice.
It’s true many neknominate submissions have helped encourage extremely risky drinking; but humans have always had a great capacity to do immensely stupid things when drunk. And yes we should have concerns that the liquor industry is using social media to great marketing effect. But this should not cause us to scurry away from social media in fear. As Pope Francis also said, the Internet offers immense possibilities and solidarity and we, as public health advocates, should be embracing this.
The Drug Foundation has dabbled in this space with mixed results. Our Driving High campaign helped us engage about the risks of drug-impaired driving, but the conversations tested our profanity filters to the limit. We’re having another crack this month with Steer Clear, and our colleagues at the Transport Agency have had great viral reach with their Ghost Chips marketing. But the most effective alcohol-related health promotion project using social media is Hello Sunday Morning, which had modest beginnings and is now a global phenomenon. The website (hellosundaymorning.org) exploits the best aspects of the internet: it’s authentic, engaging and global. And just this month an exciting newcomer has emerged to counter neknominations. #ChangeOneThing challenges people and organisations to “pay it forward” and do good deeds instead of skulling booze.
God bless the Internet.