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Jennifer O’Connell: Random violence has become a social media spectator sport

The family of the teenager in Navan suggested he may have been targeted because of who he is. It is not unreasonable to conclude those shocked eyeballs are a motivating factor too, though

You don’t need to know anything more about it than this. A child was attacked by a group of other children wearing their school uniforms. You don’t need to know every detail of what happened; you certainly don’t need to see the video in which some children round on another boy like they’re re-enacting a violent video game.

It happened at 2.30pm on a bright May afternoon on a green area designed for children’s play in an estate in Navan and left a young person with broken teeth, a concussion and a shoe print on his forehead. The incident was followed by a sickeningly familiar sequence of events: a video was uploaded to social media by someone present and widely shared by others outraged by what it revealed. That video has now been seen 5 million times.

On Wednesday, it was gathering sufficient steam that gardaí appealed to people to stop sharing it. “Out of respect for the victim in this case, we would request that people refrain from sharing this video,” a statement said.

By Thursday, Tánaiste Micheál Martin was left to ask social media platforms to take down videos of violent incidents “immediately” after they are posted online. The pace at which they do it “at times, has to be questioned”, he said.


Taoiseach Leo Varadkar added that “a young man was targeted, essentially because he was different, and was subjected to a very violent assault. What’s worse still is people felt the need to video it and then put it online. It takes a particular type of person to post videos of people with the purpose of humiliating them, a particularly nasty type of individual.”

The physical injuries will heal. The longer this is not just a traumatic memory but a trending Twitter moment, however, the longer that may take

On Friday, however, it was still widely available on Twitter, still attracting views and angry comments and desires for retribution and demands for the names of the boys in the video and – yes, of course, this is Twitter – the occasional expression of admiration for them too.

There’s no mystery why Twitter has left the video up: a braying virtual mob out to condemn a braying real life mob is grist to Elon Musk’s mill. Social media platforms get rich on your anger.

A bigger question is why people – and it is mostly adults, according to what Unesco chair on bullying and cyberbullying, Professor James O’Higgins Norman, told the Examiner – are participating in this.

Most, I suspect, don’t watch these videos because they get a guilty thrill out of it. They watch because they want to understand what happened. Or, perhaps, they watch because there’s some kind of collective relief in sharing the outrage. Maybe they’re just curious and aren’t thinking too deeply about how it might be to have their own most vulnerable, terrifying moment – or their child’s – turned into a trending social media post inviting the world’s hot takes.

Have we become so desensitised that we lack the capacity to imagine what it might feel like this week to be the victim, to know that one of the worst things that ever happened to you is racking up millions of views?

The physical injuries will heal. Life, as the Taoiseach said in a moving and humane interjection, “does get better”. The longer this is not just a traumatic memory but a trending Twitter moment, however, the longer that may take.

There is another argument against looking at the video at all or sharing it. This argument is one that gets to the root of why these attacks happen in the first place. For some, random violence has become a spectator sport, a kind of performance art or a depraved game. In the case of the Navan video, the recording starts before the attack does. Let that sink in.

Last year, gardaí in Cabra told journalists they were investigating “a number of public order incidents which are subsequently being posted on various social media platforms”. Politicians in the area told media that these incidents involved groups of young teenagers and adolescents randomly attacking other children. Leaflets were sent to parents in the area, warning them about the attacks and that the footage is being uploaded to TikTok. “If someone posts one video, the next one has to be better and more violent than the last one. That’s the kind of thing which is happening,” Sinn Féin’s Séamas McGrattan, a member of the committee, told TheJournal.

This isn’t an exclusively Irish phenomenon – there have been similar reports in Australia and the US. A bullying charity in the UK, the National Bullying Helpline, recently described the filming of attacks by children on other children as “an increasingly popular, but sickening, trend.”

It may never be clear what motivated the attack in Navan beyond, as the child’s family said, that he was targeted “because of who he is”. Gardaí are investigating. It is not unreasonable, however, to conclude those shocked eyeballs are a motivating factor too.

We know that social contagion plays a part in many of the more harmful aspects of teenage behaviour, including self-harm, cyberbullying, suicidality and violence. We’ve seen the copycat effect at play before in school shootings. It’s not a leap to say that it is a risk here.

By extension, then, if you watch and share and comment on a video of a child being beaten up, you’re contributing – however unwittingly – to the likelihood that it will happen again.