Grieving on social media not always helpful, says expert

Young people are more sceptical than their older compatriots of ‘sympathy grief’ online

Social media is breaking open taboos surrounding death and helping older generations to find new ways to grieve loved ones, a Dublin research event has heard.

Speaking at an event on social media and modern grief at Trinity College Dublin this week, Professor Charles Ess said social media platforms, Facebook in particular, have become "important new platforms" for developing support networks for those suffering from bereavement.

The talk comes amid growing interest internationally in how people experience death through the online world, and the ethics surrounding the memorialisation of the deceased on social media.

Citing research from Scandinavia — a region with some of the world’s highest Internet penetration rates — the University of Oslo professor emphasised the particular role that social media can play in helping parents to deal with the often “taboo” subject of the loss of a child.

“Digital and mobile technologies are used as resources for instantly reaching a community which can bring support in such a desperate situation anytime, day or night,” Prof Ess said.

“For them, it was a way of sustaining the memory of their child... and Facebook, interestingly enough, is a really good way to do that.”

Younger people, however, have reacted more negatively to online outpourings of grief, much to the surprise of Prof Ess.

“What was striking to me is it was the younger folk, the so-called digital natives, who found the experience of grieving online to be so off-putting... that they had to quit Facebook and they have gone back, in their words, to real life,” he said.

Prof Ess found that young people are far more sceptical than their older compatriots of “sympathy grief” from strangers who post social media messages to the deceased.

“It seems like they believe the strangers are only there to get attention themselves, while the older adults seem to find messages of support, no matter who wrote them,” he said.

He also discussed further technological and digital innovations helping to deal with other forms of loss, such as the use of social robots in therapy for people with dementia.

The lecture was organised by ADAPT, a research centre combining the expertise of researchers at four Irish universities (TCD, DCU, UCD and DIT) with that of industry partners to work on digital content innovations.