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Turn online support into real social change

Posted on December 17, 2012 | by Jess Littman

In the wake of the horrific tragedy that took place in Newtown, Conn. on the morning of Friday, Dec. 14, Americans have taken to social media to argue about the best way to prevent similar tragedies in the future. The overwhelming opinion seems to be

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that rather than focusing on the highly contentious and politicized issue of gun control, we should invest our time and energy in improving access to and the quality of health care for the mentally ill. In response to posts that take this stand, many have added comments arguing that both issues are of equal importance.

The overall mood of these posts is grief intermixed with a sense of political activism and, too often, some self-righteousness. However, the sheer number of posts, articles and online arguments about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting demonstrate that Americans care very much about preventing further tragedies and want to effect change. Unfortunately, it took the senseless murder of 20 children and six adults to inspire these passions. People feel strongly enough about this to make a difference, whether in changing gun control laws or improving access to health care for the mentally ill. But if we don’t actually make a difference now, that means these deaths inspired us only to preach on social media outlets.

As important as the circulating opinions are, if it takes a tragedy of this scale just to catalyze us to virtual action, that means it will take an event of even more drastic proportions – something I cannot even imagine – to force us to take real-world action. Not on our keyboards and not on our screens. Actions that touch the lives of children who suffer from mental illness. Action that forces politicians to reform gun control laws or face the wrath of their constituents. This is the kind of action we need, and we need it right now.

As we read posts on Facebook from our family and friends, our first instinct is often to respond, either in solidarity or opposition, with comments and shares. Next time you want to respond to one of these posts, do so. But not by commenting, and certainly not by arguing. Respond instead by looking up local children’s psychiatric care centers, most of which need volunteers. Or look up local political groups that are fighting for more gun regulation.

Whether you believe we need more mental health services, stricter gun control laws, both, or some entirely different strategy for preventing gun violence and violence in general, this argument will be won by those who take the most action. If a friend posts something that you disagree with, you may be able to convince them with your superior logic. But that just means that you and your friend now both agree on whatever you think needs to be done. Your impact will be infinitely greater if you support a child in need or a politician who is on your side.

Organizations in New York City that could use your help more than your Facebook friends could use your opinion include: The Center for the Advancement of Children’s Mental Health at Columbia University, the NYU Child Study Center, the Child Mind Institute, the Children’s Aid Society, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, among many others.

If you care enough about preventing another mass shooting from happening that you posted on social media about it, then I hope you care enough to take the next step and practice whatever you were preaching.

Jessica Littman is deputy opinion editor. Email her at jlittman@nyunews.com.

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