We’ve come to understand social media as a highlight reel of sorts. An online platform that people use to share life’s great moments. It seems that not only has the digital age shifted how we share our life with a virtual community, but now, also how we grieve one’s death. According to Mashable, around 428 online presences pass every hour, and within its first eight years, 30 million Facebook users died, sobering numbers that make you question what happens to our carefully curated community once we’ve moved on.
Researchers from Northeastern and Harvard Universities, and UC San Diego, were curious too, conducting a study to explore what happens to online networks after death. And though there was no clear definitive answer in their findings, the study suggests social networks become more active following a death; that these online connections help users fill a void after the loss of a friend. And from personal experience, this type of grief has a way of manifesting in pictures and informal eulogies, followed by an agreed-upon hashtag surfacing quickly after a passing.
Over a period of four years, researchers studied the interactions of millions of Californians who used Facebook. The researched networks comprised everyone within a participant’s Facebook friends, and activity was measured by posts, comments and photo tags. Fifteen thousand networks where a person passed away, compared to 30,000 networks where there was no loss, were assessed. Based on communication patterns, they found that for adults who suffered loss, Facebook activity increased by 30 per cent and for young adults (within the range of 18-24), the figured reached 60 per cent. The study also found that interactions between close friends of the deceased stayed elevated for a year, and interactions between friends and acquaintances peaked for several months.
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The researchers believe that those who find connection online, in the face of death, may be able to recover more quickly than those who choose to grieve in a more socially isolated setting. While there’s no direct answer as to why grieving online has a positive impact, you could argue that social media opens up new avenues to forge a sense of community in the face of adversity, readily offering access to support, irregardless of geography.