The stigma of addiction may not be going away anytime soon. As recently as 2014, a study at Johns Hopkins University found that people with substance use disorders were significantly more susceptible to negative stereotypes than people with other forms of mental illness.
That public stigma is increasingly harder to maintain, however, thanks to popular social networking tools like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, which are reinventing the ways we talk about addiction.
For one thing, such outlets have provided greater visibility to the struggles of those with SUDs. It’s easy to stigmatize people with addiction when you don’t know them, or when their struggles are hidden and out of view, but when addiction shows up in your Facebook feed as a personal post, the disease suddenly has a name and a face and is visible, maybe for the first time.
One writer describes “watching friends recover from addiction on Facebook” in an article in The Atlantic:
"Through likes and comments, I’ve watched my hometown of Perry, Ohio, disappear into and come back from heroin addiction."
To her point, status updates and comments on Facebook are, in effect, fluid, open diaries written in real-time by those in the trenches of addiction, whether celebrating another day sober, dispatching a cry for help or grieving the loss of a friend to overdose.
That relates to another trend regarding how social networking tools like Facebook are changing the conversation regarding addiction. Last June, Facebook announced that it would begin ranking stories in users’ feeds according to those that are “most meaningful,” and it promised users “the most personalized experience,” making the feed “subjective, personal and unique”—in other words, ultra-customized stories that personalize addiction and other news and current events.
The instantaneous mass-sharing of images on social media is a fitting example of this trend toward greater personalization of addiction.
One case in point is the photo taken last year of two heroin users in a car, having just overdosed as their four-year-old child looked on from the backseat. The same day it was posted by the East Ohio police department, the image went viral, generating 22,000 shares and 3,000 comments on Facebook. The photo’s shock value apparently served its intended purpose—an alarming and empathetic wake-up call to residents regarding the severity of the epidemic ravaging their community.
The promotion of thought-provoking photo and video campaigns that allow users to express their personal views or experiences is another way in which addiction is being de-stigmatized via social media. These campaigns run the gamut.
Last spring, a coalition of treatment and recovery organizations teamed up for “Recovery Advocacy Action Week 2016,” which featured a different interactive theme on social media for each day of the week. Monday was #ThisIsWhatRecoveryLooksLike, and participants were invited to share a photo of what recovery looked like in their own lives. Tuesday was #OurStoriesHavePower, and participants were encouraged to share a bit of their recovery story in their social networks and by tagging their legislators, and so on.
In another campaign, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids invited its Facebook audience to give their thoughts on “Why Prevention of Drug and Alcohol Abuse Is Important to You.” In shared selfies, parents, teens and others held up their answers in handwritten scrawl, in effect shining a light on the very personal ways in which drugs and alcohol affect ordinary Americans like you and me.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse has parlayed a similar social media strategy in its “Shatter the Myths” campaign, an outreach directed to teens addressing the addiction stigma head-on. This time, though, participants can also share videos that answer the question, “Why do you want to shatter the myths about drug addiction?”
These real and personalized glimpses of the addiction epidemic have more compelling, mass appeal—akin to that of a social protest, for example—than what a celebrity talking head might generate in a public -service announcement.
The share features of tools like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram don’t just offer greater visibility and personalization to the struggles of those with addiction; they are also venues for building community and solidarity among those in recovery, but with the perk of more anonymity when desired.
Features like Twitter chat and Facebook Live are good examples. When the leaders of Recovery Advocacy Action Week hosted a Twitter chat led by well-known voices in the recovery movement, it was a bit like a town-hall meeting on steroids: Identified only by their Twitter handles, participants arguably were more inclined to voice their raw, unedited concerns, paving the way for more honest, vulnerable and, in turn, deeper, more authentic connections.
There are, of course, limitations to the de-stigmatizing power of social media tools. In #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein worries that the ultra-customized personalization of news on Facebook and other social media channels is contributing to greater polarization, fragmentation and extremism in American society, such that users of social media end up in a bubble of their own making, in which the only views they hear echo their own. (For Sunstein, that’s troublesome because what’s at stake is nothing other than the very future of American democracy. As an antidote, Sunstein recommends that Facebook add “serendipity buttons” to promote unexpected or “surprise” encounters with different viewpoints.)
Such concerns are also applicable to the stigma of addiction. When what we are reading and conversing about in our social media circles is only a reflection of what we want to read and converse about—when the views and experiences shared there are mere reflections of our own—we can find ourselves in the same proverbial echo chamber that Sunstein warns about.
Ultimately, I suspect that ending the stigma of addiction will require transcending such boundaries. In the meantime, the greater visibility, personalization and community that outlets like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram extend to conversations about addiction and recovery can only be a good thing.
Kristina Robb-Dover is a full-time writer for Beach House Center for Recovery.