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Social Media Addict Seeks Connection, Escape

Nov 17 2010
Lessons from the story of the young mom who killed her baby for interrupting her Farmville game.

I've always been a little suspicious of Facebook's Farmville app, but I never thought it would become an accessory to murder.

The online game, which allows players to plow, plant, and grow virtual crops, seems to turn otherwise sane people into chronic status updaters desperate to get their hands on, say, a virtual shovel.

Seeing serious adults get sucked into role-playing games usually amuses me in the same way seeing businessmen and soccer moms playing with a Fisher Price farm set might. But occasionally my cynicism gets the best of me, and I roll my eyes at people's devotion to such menial endeavors.

The story of Alexandra Tobias and her 3-month-old baby, though, made me freeze mid-eyeroll. To some people, I note, Farmville may not be menial at all. Online networks might be a part of a larger search for belonging and significance—one that can go terribly wrong.

Florida resident Tobias, 22, was slaving away on her virtual farm when her son, Dylan, started crying excessively. Frustrated with the interruptions, Tobias told police that she shook the infant to make him stop. Then, she said, she smoked a cigarette to compose herself, before shaking him some more. She pled guilty to second-degree murder last month and will be sentenced in December.

Like many, when I first heard these details I felt a tragic sort of sickness—for the baby, for his mother, and for the illusions that online communities can create for vulnerable people.

I'm not suggesting we rise up and blame Farmville's creators or Facebook for this needless death. Clearly we humans have the ability to create a stunning obsession out of just about anything under the sun. But a story such as this should still stir some real-time reflection about our online habits. And it could present a new opportunity for people of faith to reach out to the vulnerable and help them approach new technological habits within God's intentions for his image bearers.

Sometimes our virtual lives function as a hobby, a supplement to rich and healthy non-virtual existence. But social networking sites like Facebook also have addictive properties that serve as convenient escapes to real lives that might not be going well. In a person's most lonely and depleted state, Facebook can easily become a welcome alternate reality. A young mom depleted by the demands of round-the-clock care for a newborn, for example, might welcome the chance to get lost in mindless entertainment. And if she was socially isolated—another common experience in motherhood—social starvation might drive her toward virtual adult companionship.

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