Soldiers are increasingly connected to the virtual world and it is degrading Operational Capability. Our soldiers’ social groupings and structure have been redefined; they are no longer isolated and forced to forge social links with those in their immediate surroundings. Instead he or she can pick up their mobile device and link back directly to their friends and family. This has a significant negative impact on the emotional resilience of our people.
Quantitative scoring of emotional resilience is difficult due to its complexity. With human emotion at the centre, measurement can only be a simplified qualitative gauge of complex feelings. The activation of emotion is triggered by stimuli unique to the individual’s experience, mental agility and a baseline of what is normal. Generally, negative emotions can be linked to physical or psychological trauma or stress.
Psychological resilience is defined as the process of negotiating, managing and adapting to significant sources of stress or trauma.1 Independent studies of peer-reviewed articles that focus on resilience2 have attempted to define the factors that have highest quality psychometric qualities. Below are several factors that consistently recur in studies of adult resilience:
- Self esteem
- Personal competence
- Acceptance of self and life
- Social competence
- Social support
- Personal strength
- Family cohesion
- Secure relationships
The referenced material suggests that social networks and social infrastructure are a common theme, therefore impacting on resilience.
The ease with which soldiers can re-connect with their established networks means that they are less likely to establish bonds with their new team, and will defer to who and what they know. The psychological stresses that our soldiers endure are potentially beyond that asked from a supermarket employee and it is with team mates that the soldier is most likely to share times of hardship. The soldier will get sympathy from friends at home and empathy from his colleagues; the latter should be encouraged, his ‘escapism’ inhibits the development of situational emotional resilience.
Capability can be considered as sustained manning, equipment and training and often is during performance reporting up to a parliamentary level. Prefixing it with ‘operational’ would suggest that there is a time imperative. The author believes that even though the requirement for emotional resilience may be greatest in an operational theatre, the roots of building that resilience are deeper and it can only be superficially bettered during Mission Specific Training.
Manning – Millennials and Snowflakes3 do not exist where there is good leadership. A cynic would suggest that generational stereotyping is only prevalent due to the senior generation classifying the junior so that it may be distinguished in social status. It is extremely toxic and in general it belittles the junior generation. If a lie is repeated enough, people, including the subject, will think it is true; which effects esteem and acceptance of self. Respect for others is crucial in recognising that every soldier has been nurtured into what they are. It is up to the leadership to guide them into what we want them to be; not group them into derogatory stereotypes.
Considering the factors that affect resilience, the obvious first step is to know your people. This is not the sole responsibility of the Platoon Commander but the entire chain of command. The opportunities for social interaction outside of work have changed but there is still an element of control held by commanders.
Equipment – Personal electronic equipment and the internet mean that a soldier’s friend base must no longer be located anywhere other than in the virtual world. Online forums, gaming and other mobile applications offer hubs for mass social interactions. These playgrounds are less bounded by formality and have questionable measures in reprimanding unacceptable behaviour.
Our soldiers spend a considerable amount of time physically dislocated from their pre-service social structure. There is also an observed decrease in physical social interaction during down time; soldiers preferring to engage with friends through social media platforms and games rather than the NAAFI. Being constantly connected is a social norm. Thus, when deployed on exercise or operation their instinct is to trawl the pages of their preferred platform from their mobile/welfare device comparing their real-life situation to snapshots of other people’s perfect profiles. However, these social media platforms also offer a modern welfare service in maintaining a connection to their social structure whilst their social norms are interrupted.
What was once normal for a soldier has dramatically changed. Previously, the dislocation from family and friends at home forced the soldier to create close bonds with his team outside of the normal working day. Currently, a soldier’s social support remains with his established friends and family, who potentially do not understand the soldier’s situation and who most definitely offer more sympathy than colleagues in the same situation.
Training – These considerations are made without a deep understanding of psychology. However, as a leader the research conducted for this article has provided the author with a better understanding of the impacts of changing norms in social interaction. That said, extant command, leadership and management training is sufficient. People are at the core of the Army’s business and so those in command are alive to the changing behaviours of their soldiers. Command culture must focus on the subordinate.
Timetabling group sessions into the battle rhythm to talk about feelings is probably a step too far. Moreover, attempting to better emotional resilience directly as a commander is potentially not a viable solution. The Padre has a foot in the door already and, as someone out with the chain of command, can engage with the soldiers more openly. Ensuring that soldiers understand feelings in terms of morale is a simple way to present the case and prepare them for emotional stress.
Professional competence relieves stress in any given situation. Drills allow cognitive power to be focussed on processing new information instead of co-ordinating action. Therefore, we must continue to train for the worst-case scenario during general training – greater resilience will be a consequence.
The Role of Social Media
Social media has dramatically changed a soldier’s social infrastructure. The impact of social media interaction can be positive from a welfare perspective but also negative in terms of retention. It has a positive or negative effect on an individual’s perceived self-worth.
The competitive nature of humans is nurtured in the Army. From the ‘Be the Best’ mantra to intra-unit rivalry; competition bolsters team cohesion, provides a common focus and encourages esprit de corps. However, this competitive encouragement could emphasise the desire to be socially rich. For centuries, humans have been trying to out-do each other; increasing their social status. Social media now provides quantitative measure of social approval; the value of the ‘like’ on Facebook, the like and retweet on Twitter etc. As a currency, these measures have an impact on how we feel.
Coupled with our social status, humans constantly compare themselves to others and try to present themselves in the best possible light to those that are perceived to be socially superior (or inferior). Pre-internet interaction was restricted by the number of encounters one had during the day. “The difference with social media is that it seems expressly designed for … bragging and boasting of all that one is, has, and does, as well as for others to judge these things.”4 Everyone is doing it and a large population can be judged from anywhere at any time, in an instant. This leads to a constant comparison to others, even with those who are mere acquaintances or complete strangers.
The key fact is that everyone is trying to broadcast the best of what they are, have, and do. However, this comparison is purely based on a ‘perfect’ profile. Danah Boyd broadens this social currency beyond approval to attention, talking about the “celebritization of Everyday life”5 and the entertainment of multiple dramas unfolding in the virtual space. Celebrities are made from social media popularity alone which is a further lure to posting perfection.
The science behind how many ‘likes’ a post gets is not straight forward. Facebook algorithms promote posts that are popular and will engage the viewer. The social media ‘rush hours’ depend on an individual’s friend set; university students may experience a posting frenzy during lecture breaks and in the evenings. So, the currency has trading times that we may not fully understand that in turn affects our perception of approval.
The above rings true for applications that link the user to reality; the world of the anonymous post is even more complex. While there are social media platforms on the Dark Net that boast complete anonymity, there are also applications available through normal search engines that allow ‘anonymous’ public posting. 4Chan and YikYak6 are some examples with the latter geographically bounded to users within a 5-mile radius. The effect these sites have on the user is more difficult to determine but can be considered more extreme as the opportunity for trolling and bullying is greater due to the anonymity of the user.7
American fraternities and sororities have social media representatives that monitor the posts of members. Anyone that posts controversial material is reprimanded and ‘ordered’ to remove the offending post. However, student members are greatly invested in being part of a Greek club and the benefits outweigh the control of their social media activities.
As Commanders, we must embrace our soldiers as digital pioneers. As leaders, we must be role-models which includes how we conduct our social media activity; we need to be part of our soldier’s network. They are constantly discovering new ways to communicate and to remain connected. We must educate them on the factors that affect social media approval and ground them in reality. Our soldiers must realise that they do not need to seek approval from those that have made less of a commitment to protecting society. The vehicle to deliver this education is not necessarily the commander, it must come from a social peer. We must ensure the soldier understands the benefits associated to being part of the Combat Club and why our public and professional profile is so important.
As an organisation, we must seek social approval beyond that of the attention seeker and be smart in tackling Brandolini’s law;8 direct opposition to the negative post will not win overwhelming agreement. We should ensure our soldiers are connected to their networks whenever possible but prepare them to be disconnected. The traditional social interaction in the NAAFI offered soldiers a chance to vent in a contained environment but now our soldiers have evolved and we must be able to deal with this in the virtual world. We must even be comfortable about it being in public; the potential use of an anonymous forum. Ultimately, we need to be faster at painting our organisational ‘perfect’ profile on platforms our soldiers use.
We must guard against organisational fratricide and present a unified profile. Units must consider the real purpose behind their posts. A sycophantic post to please the higher formation may have a damaging effect on the soldier. It must be about the subordinate not the unit. Praise a sub-ordinate team as opposed to taking the credit for the sub-ordinates efforts. Most of all consideration must be given to the desired effect of a post.
The publication of “#DIGITALARMY” is a good start but the focus is on protecting the individual and the organisation. There is an argument that soldiers, and commanders need to be trained on how to employ social media to best effect. Once official and personal accounts have been segregated, a guide on how to plan a social media strategy across various platforms would be welcomed.
By understanding social media and its use by soldiers we can understand the impact it could have. The organisation and its leaders must be role models in the virtual domain as much as they are in the physical domain. To do this they must be in their subordinate’s virtual social structure. This cannot be forced upon the sub-ordinate and they must want to be part of their commanders social group. A limit of one or two levels above and below would be a sensible guide. Being part of a subordinate’s social structure, physical and virtual, gives the commander insight into an individual’s emotional resilience.
Nigel commissioned into the Infantry in 2003 and is currently serving as a sub-unit commander. His operational experiences include Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan. Stemming from a capability and acquisition post, his interests centre around soldier capability; equipment integration, increasing lethality and accelerating decision making to name a few.
- Windle, G. (2011). What is resilience? A review and concept analysis. Reviews in Clinical Gerontology, 21(2), 152-169.
- Windle, G, Bennett, KM and Noyes, J. (2011). A methodological review of resilience measurement scales. Health and Quality of Life Outcomes 2011.
- Snowflake Generation: the generation of people who became adults in the 2010s, viewed as being less resilient and more prone to taking offence than previous generations (Collins English Dictionary).
- Freitas, D. (2017). The Happiness Effect. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Boyd, D. (2014). It’s Complicated – The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven: YALE University Press.
- YikYak has been shut down since time of writing.
- Bartlett, J. (2015). The Dark Net. London: Windmill Books.
- The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.