Exposing Addiction: How Social Media Perpetuates Stigma

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Destigmatizing addiction shouldn’t be as difficult today as it was in the past. With the evolution of our understanding of addiction as a medical condition, and with so many people struggling with this disease, most would think that we can no longer view neighbors, friends, partners, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters as morally deficient, deviants, or deserving of shame. But there still hasn’t been a large enough shift in public opinion. Many of those struggling with addiction are treated as lesser-than, simply because they are ill.

Nowhere is this clearer than in social media and the sphere of public opinion. I have to ask, almost every time I see a new post regarding addiction: would we speak this way about a car crash, choking incident, or a catastrophic fall? Would we record this person suffering in photos and videos, next to their children crying, their parents looking on? Would we even consider this appropriate?

It is hard to believe most people would find this acceptable. Yet with addiction, there are no boundaries for our voyeurism. Even though addiction is a disease, we treat it differently than other devastating illnesses. People feel entitled – or perhaps worse, as if they are doing a good deed – by recording these moments, disseminating them across the internet, and then preaching the benefits the exposure will have.

These photos and videos do not benefit anyone, least of all the people they document and the children who have no say in their viewership. In the last week, we’ve seen a video appear on Facebook in which a young father tells his son that his mother has died from drugs. The video has over 35 million views on Facebook, and been posted on various news sites.

This is just the latest in a string of widely viewed videos and photos cataloging addiction. In each instance, there was someone who thought there was value in ingraining the tragedy. Many of the people who shared these experiences – including police officers, bystanders, and in the last case, the family itself – believe they are teaching about the harm addiction can cause.

In reality, they are humiliating those with this disease and their loved ones, perhaps without realizing it, conceivably with the hollow intention of spreading the word about the dangers of drugs. We cause further harm by clicking a link and observing the horrifying consequences, damning those with addiction, and blaming them for their child’s hurt. These posts merely provide a means for the public to critique the parenting and ethics of individuals with addiction, and serve as a source of increasing stigma.

Let’s be clear: This is not prevention. Scare tactics don’t work. This is not normalizing addiction as a disease, either. Instead, it’s about perpetuating the worst aspects of this illness, and dehumanizing everyone involved. Ridiculing the subjects of these videos will do nothing to address their illness or to prevent addiction. To truly help, we must direct our outrage toward the fact that treatment is inaccessible, unaffordable, and highly stigmatized.

We are in the throes of an epidemic that demands our attention and outrage. But the attention given to these videos and pictures is a cruel deflection, taking advantage of those who suffer from addiction and their families. Instead of evoking blame, these social media posts should spur a conversation about why it’s wrong to stare, shame, and mock those who have lost everything due to addiction. Our response must be rooted in dignity, humanity and our core values. These are the morals that would never otherwise encourage us to watch people’s lives fall apart, even under the misguided belief that we are helping.

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