Has social media and technology spawned a culture of indifference to the welfare of other people?

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Social Media

So many splendid channels for communication has technology and social media afforded us. But it has a most misfortunate side-effect: it spawns a culture of indifference to the welfare of other people.

This especially includes marginalised groups, such as working carers, older people, people with disability, Indigenous people, and those from a low socio-economic background.

These days, a lot of people are closer to their ‘devices’ than they are to their fellow humans.

Two tragic stories last month underscored the proliferation of this tendency.

In Sydney’s northern beaches area, in an ocean-views home on a busy Palm Beach street, an elderly couple lay dead for weeks before anyone thought to wonder why they hadn’t been sighted lately.

Teenagers film and laugh at drowning man

And in Florida, USA, a group of teenagers shot video of a man with disability who was drowning in a lake, and taunted him as he struggled and screamed for help. Then they posted the footage on Facebook.

Jamel Dunn, 31, a father of two who walked with a cane, got into difficulties in a lake in a place called Cocoa just south of Cape Canaveral and the John F. Kennedy Space Centre. A group of five kids, aged 14 to 16, saw him and started shooting video of him struggling and screaming for help and of themselves enjoying the spectacle and laughing.

They didn’t respond to his cries for help. Nor did they lodge a 911 call. Instead, they taunted Mr Dunn, telling him he was about to die. When he failed to come up the last time, one of them declared: “Oh, he just died.” Which cracked them all up. Then they posted the video and it went viral on the internet.

The body wasn’t recovered until three days later when a friend of the Dunn family saw the video and called the police.

This was happening a few miles from the site of one of technology’s greatest triumphs, the launching of the Apollo 11 mission that put men on the moon.

Have a real conversation with your elderly neighbour

Facebook figured, too, in the Palm Beach story. After the bodies of Geoffrey Iddon, 82, and his wife, Anne, 81, were discovered, the NSW Police Northern Beaches Local Command put up a post: Time to put down those iPhones and iPads … and have a real conversation with your elderly neighbour.

The cruel irony in the Iddon case is that there exists technology by which the alarm might have been raised in time to save Mrs Iddon at least, an arm of that same splendid communications technology that cast such a thrall that nobody took any interest in them for weeks on end.

The Iddons weren’t Facebook people. But they were real human beings. Mrs Iddon was blind and had very little mobility. Mr Iddon, who was apparently in good health, and worked as a volunteer, was her sole carer. They treasured their independence and insisted they needed no outside help.

It appears that Geoffrey died of natural causes some time in June. It isn’t known how long Anne lay there calling for her husband before she died of starvation and dehydration.

A technology generation gap

Superintendent Dave Darcy, who posted the Local Command’s Facebook message called on people to pay more attention to elderly people in their communities.

“I reckon they should get off their Facebook for 20 minutes and spend a bit of time with some older people and get to understand what they’re about,” he told the ABC. “Life is a team game and you need a few other people around you to make sure you’re successful sometimes.”

He points to what might be described as a technology generation gap.

“Our elderly, particularly in that 70s to 80s group, are completely left behind in terms of social media. A friend to them isn’t the click of a button. A friend to them is someone who exchanges eye-contact and genuinely cares about them.”

The Iddons, he said, were “a fiercely independent couple, life-long partners, where the husband was a very good and diligent carer for his wife. They were very resistant to help from health services and medical services.”

As recently as May 4 they had been visited by NSW Community Health officers, but said they needed no assistance.

Another police officer, Superintendent Rob Critchlow of the Hills Local Area Command, who has a focus on the protection of the elderly, said that, in a sense, the Iddons were their own victims.

“It’s a tricky one because they were pretty functional within their own limits. They weren’t being victimised by anyone. They had resources.”

He told the ABC that some experts described that kind of independence as ‘self-actualised abuse’. A failure to seek or accept assistance was “seen medically as a form of abuse but not involving a third party”.

Rob Critchlow told the ABC that there is now alarm technology of high sophistication available to carers of elderly people.

There are sensor devices that pick up movement, or the lack of it. There are GPS-type systems that track the person’s location. It is possible, Superintendent Critchlow said, to put “a virtual fence around an elderly person’s property in case they wander”.