The chilling murder this week of five students, a nurse and a volunteer teacher in a small-town Finnish school, should give us pause to think, about the challenges facing European young people generally.
I have visited Finland more than a few times over the past decade, meeting with community leaders and speaking to audiences which have included many teenagers. Violence is a very real possibility in any community, but having written about school shootings in the USA, I never thought I’d be addressing such a thing in rural Finland.
Finland is famous for Nokia and Formula One racing drivers. It is better known for saunas than shootings. Generally speaking, Finnish people are carefree, outgoing and friendly in the long days of summer; then quietly stoic during the dark days of winter, when sunlight is hard to find.
Their standard of living is one of the highest in the world and their education system enjoys some of the highest average test scores in Europe. In today’s globalised culture, however, small and wealthy nations or cities are no longer immune to the social traumas normally associated with poorer regions or huge urban populations.
When 18-year-old Pekka-Eric Auvinen walked into Jokela High School in southern Finland, carrying a 22 calibre handgun, he marked his nation with a terrible stain of sadness. And he opened a debate, about whether random gun attacks perpetrated by young people might one day become as much an issue in Europe as they are in America. What, if anything, can we take from this tragedy for the future? Is there anything we can learn that might help European young people in general?
Above all, perhaps, this catastrophe reminds us of the limits of digital communication technologies when it comes to providing meaningful human interaction. Technologies are, of course, amoral in themselves – it is the uses to which we put them that will determine whether their impact is benevolent or otherwise.
While internet-based communication offers a fantastic boon to our lives, it cannot provide an adequate substitute for face-to-face interaction. Digital time does not replace eyeball time. In some cases, as with Auvinen, social isolation, facilitated by digital gadgetry, can push an already traumatised young mind to the edge of sanity.
Hours before his murderous spree, Auvinen posted sinister warnings of his intent on YouTube. His first YouTube site had operated under the name ‘NaturalSelector89’. Auvinen was a self-confessed fan of social Darwinism, which applies Darwin’s theories of natural selection to social structures. Basically, it says, the weak must be jettisoned to help preserve and advance the strong. YouTube decided that Auvinen’s violent ranting was at odds with its policies and removed his channel from its platform.
So he constructed another, using the codename ‘Sturmgeist89’. The term is taken from a German word meaning ‘storm-spirit’. It now seems a fitting name for his inner condition, but it was also the name of one of his favourite heavy metal bands.
Young people – and the not-so-young – increasingly use the internet to build friendships and to share personal agendas and stories with their peers. In some of the world’s wealthier nations, teenagers may spend more time networking online than they do in face-to-face contact with others. This is most likely the case in Finland, which is one of the most wired nations in Europe. It has more mobile phones than almost any other nation on earth – in real, not simply proportionate, terms. And it was one of the first countries to develop comprehensive and advanced broadband systems.
Climatic and family features sometimes conspire to turn digital communication into a social and emotional lifeline for the young. In Finland, the deep winter darkness drives people indoors for long periods and suicide rates soar in the winter months. The nation also has one of the highest divorce rates in Europe. Study after study has shown that children do less well in fragmented families than they do in families that stay together.
In Finland, then, as in some other parts of Europe, many teens are faced with a stark choice. They can spend the long hours of winter’s dismal darkness trying to communicate with parents and step-parents with whom they don’t feel comfortable, or cannot connect.Or they can spend those hours alone, relating to the world only through the artificial prism of cyberspace. The former all too often leads to bitter argument, while the latter provides a recipe for anxiety and depression.
I’m not suggesting that all or most young Finns are depressed. I’ve spoken to hundreds of Finnish teenagers who are wonderful young people, with a real sense of destiny. The fact is, though, that teenagers the world over find it hard enough to fit into the adult world, without the added pressures of fractured families, much less the new opportunities for cyber isolation.
In a TV interview I conducted last year with my futurist friend Dr Patrick Dixon, we talked about how technology affects the fragmentation of society. Patrick noted that, for all their wizardry, Virtual Reality (VR) and other forms of web-based technology are limited in their ability to satisfy deep human needs. There is, he said, a huge and growing need for high touch in the age of high-tech.
As a society, we need to be consciously and deliberately creating new opportunities for young people to interact in positive and meaningful face-to-face environments. They need the chance to get together, to form Real Tribes as well as Cyber Tribes. And they need to connect not just with people of their own age, but with those of other generations, so that they gain a well-rounded picture of the world and their place in it.
There is an even greater urgency with this as we continue the push toward a ubiquitous virtual environment. Local authorities, religious organisations, community clubs and school groups can do a great deal to inspire social interaction and cohesion. Working together, they, along with parents and guardians, can help the young discover a meaningful ‘first life’ before they lose themselves online in Second Life.
We must stop seeing events like the shooting in Finland as one-off, couldn't-happen-again occurrences. As adults with a social conscience, we must realise that young people are looking to us for love and respect, for affectionate interaction and discipline, and for help in building a healthy sense of direction for the future. In this, we must not fail them.