These days, chances are you’ll be alerted to an emergency through a notification on your phone. Social media can make that news more personal by showing you eyewitness accounts, or even telling you if your friends are safe.

Facebook first launched its “Safety Check” feature in 2014 to allow people to assure their loved ones they were OK if a natural disaster struck. The tool was activated the following year during terror attacks in Paris — the first use in a man-made disaster. Facebook has activated it dozens of times since, after reports of bombings and shootings.

Last Saturday, as several men drove a van onto the London Bridge and stabbed people, Aaron Balick was safely at home when he started getting notifications from friends on Facebook who were marking themselves safe.

“And every time I would get that notification, I would get this demand from Facebook saying ‘check in and let everybody know you're safe,’” Balick said. “And I started to feel really uncomfortable.”

Balick is a psychotherapist and author of the book, "The Psychodynamics of Social Networking." He says we’re so plugged into the world around us that “there’s this baseline assumption that we're all in danger all the time.”

The Facebook safety check can be a balm for people worried about loved ones far away. And Balick says he understands its use, especially in the event of earthquakes, tsunamis, even citywide attacks like the one in Paris in 2015. But the scale of the London Bridge attack was isolated to a small area, and the Facebook alert “elevates it to a global threat,” Balick said.  

Ultimately, the goal of a terrorist attack is to spread fear and panic, he says. And Balick worries a Facebook safety check might set the bar for the kind of reaction perpetrators are looking for following smaller attacks. “I think the intention was probably a positive one, but I think the way in which it's rolled out very possibly does more harm than good.”

You can read Balick's full story here

From PRI's The World ©2017 PRI