Today’s soldiers face more deployments, more stress, and more suicides than at any time in the recent past. But at least they have modern technologies like Facebook and Skype to help them maintain a connection with their world back home. And that’s got to be a good thing.
Maybe not. The benefits of adding social media to the battle zone is turning out to be anything but clear cut. First, soldiers are always challenged by the period of reintegration (think of the scene in Hurt Locker where Jeremy Renner’s character stands overwhelmed in the cereal aisle of a supermarket). The internet can make that reintegration a daily process.
And sometimes, what soldiers see back home is a cause of added stress.
And on top of this unremitting combat anxiety, our soldiers have to cope with unremitting domestic anxiety of a sort that previous generations never knew, because these soldiers are Skype-ing with their families several times a week, even from the mountains of Afghanistan. At first, the Army believed this constant contact might help mitigate loneliness. Now, [General Peter] Chiarelli frankly acknowledges, he’s not so sure, “because technology just drags you back home, where your 22-year-old wife is having trouble finding a job and has a couple of kids she’s taking care of on her own.” Many soldiers are also addicted to Facebook, whose tagging function is proving a mixed blessing. “Soldiers are seeing pictures of their loved ones in bars, pictures of their loved ones in outrageous behaviors with sexual overtones,” says Colonel Kathy Platoni, a clinical psychologist in the Army Reserve who’s been deployed four times. “Everything they’re hanging on to is demolished. What’s sustaining them is torn away.”
I don’t pretend to have the slightest clue about the level of fear and stress that these soldiers experience. And I imagine I’d want as much contact with home as I could get. But even for us civilians, it’s certainly worth noting that what seems obvious about social media is actually not at all obvious.
The technology is simply advancing faster than our ability to understand its ramifications. Figuring out how to most effectively use social media for the greatest positive impact is an urgent challenge for the military. It should also be a key goal for the rest of us back home.