Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Mass Shootings

Mass Shootings Are a Symptom, Not the Root Problem

A personal perspective of a parent and an educator at Michigan State University.

Key points

  • A recent mass shooting at Michigan State University was carried out by a gunman described as isolated, "angry," "bitter," and a "lone wolf."
  • The social isolation many experienced in the pandemic is likely a contributing factor to a recent rise in mass shootings and violent crime.
  • Parents, educators, and community members can help foster social engagement among young people, potentially lessening the risk of violence.

It was a Monday evening when information about a potential mass shooting at Michigan State University, where I am a faculty member, started to circulate among faculty, students, and parents. Rumors quickly became a terrifying reality.

As a parent, your first instinct is to protect your child. As a faculty member, your students are your kids, your responsibility. When faced with a mass shooting and being in no position to help, the feeling of powerlessness is overwhelming.

Michigan State University is part of a broader, close-knit community, often with only one degree of separation. It seems as if every student is either the child of your colleague, friend, or neighbor down the street, or is in the same class as your kid.

The mass shooting at MSU on February 13, 2023, claimed the lives of Brian Fraser, Arielle Anderson, and Alexandria Verne, who were truly outstanding individuals. As I write this article, five more students are battling for their lives.

How can you make sense of a senseless act? A hard look at the data reveals a startling truth.

A National Crisis

A mass shooting is broadly defined as an incident in which four or more people are injured or killed, not including the shooter. In the 60 days since the beginning of 2023, there have been 93 of these occurrences.

Gun Violence Archive, Feb 15th, 2023
Source: Gun Violence Archive, Feb 15th, 2023

Mass shootings in the U.S. have dramatically increased in the past three years, marking the COVID-19 pandemic as a tipping point for their acceleration. In educational institutions specifically, shooting incidents nearly doubled when students resumed in-person learning in 2021.

Yet mass shootings are only the tip of the violent crime iceberg. Looking at the broader trend of violent crimes, almost every indicator shows a significant increase in post-pandemic years. One of the most alarming statistics pertains to the number of kids (17 years old or younger) that were killed by gun violence. Between 2019 to 2022, that number jumped from 982 to 1,660. That is an increase of nearly 70 percent—a true national crisis.

With these figures in mind, we are left wondering: Why did violent crime surge after the pandemic?

Is the Root Cause Social Isolation?

Social interaction is a basic human need (Maslow 1943). Studies show that socially involved experiences provide us with a sense of happiness and well-being (Gilovich and Gallo 2020).

When deprived of interaction with others—and especially when experiencing prolonged social isolation, such as in the case of COVID-19—both adults and children experience long-lasting and severe adverse psychological, emotional, and behavioral consequences. Prolonged social isolation can lead to anxiety (social anxiety, in particular), panic, depression, feelings of loneliness, and a host of other mental health issues (Novotney 2019; Saltzman et al. 2020). In particular, socially isolated individuals commonly exhibit elevated levels of antisocial behavior, anger, aggression, and difficulties engaging in healthy interpersonal relationships (Pietrabissa and Simpson 2020).

Indeed, the mass shooter at MSU was portrayed by his neighbors as having a “lone-wolf kind of mentality,” and according to his father, used to lock himself in his room for extended periods of time while playing violent video games as he grew “more and more bitter. Angry and bitter. So angry. Evil angry.” His profile closely aligns with research findings on college mass shooters, which have found that college shooters “seem to be anomic and have stopped trying to integrate into groups,” causing them to be “more disconnected and hence closer to the canonical loner” (Newman and Fox 2009; p. 1304).

The fact that men make up 98 percent of mass shooters may also suggest that social isolation is a plausible contributor, as women are typically more socially connected with wider and more diverse social networks, which serve as a buffer for stressful life events (Dollete and Phillips 2004).

To be fair, most of us were socially isolated during COVID-19, and the vast majority didn't feel the need to go on the rampage against defenseless people. Yet being a mass shooter or a violent offender is seldom the result of a single factor or event. It is often a confluence of psychological, socioeconomic, social, and environmental factors that boil over to drive violent crimes in general and mass shootings in particular (Peterson and Densley 2021).

It’s hard to deny, however, that the social isolation imposed on us during the pandemic added yet another level of complication. We were instructed to avoid social interaction because other individuals were potentially harmful to our health and the health of those we care about. Although there was a solid scientific basis for this message, it did create a perception that physical proximity to others poses grave harm (Pietrabissa and Simpson 2020). Now, even long after the social restrictions were lifted, a growing number of individuals are choosing to shun social interactions.

Furthermore, the new “normal” for many of us continues to be less socially involved in almost every aspect of our lives. We have less need to leave the comfort of our homes for work, shopping, attaining education, or for entertainment.

Screens, whether our phones or our computers, mediate significant portions of our social interactions. On average, we spend nearly 773 hours a year on social media, and we tend to view social media as an integral part of our social lives and as a means of social connectivity.

Unfortunately, while social media can enrich our social lives in terms of the breadth of social connections, it lacks the depth and complexity of in-person interaction. In fact, social media can give us a false sense of social connectivity and heighten our social isolation. Drifting away from society has never been easier.

What Can We Do As Parents and Educators?

There is a consensus that healthy social connections and relationships are essential for the well-being and health of individuals. Developing mechanisms to facilitate healthy and supportive social interactions is key to significantly reducing the risks of adverse psychological, emotional, and behavioral effects of social isolation, including aggression.

As parents and educators, we are well-suited to provide our kids and our students with opportunities for positive social interactions. Parents should foster a sense of connectedness in their kids by actively engaging them in routine social endeavors, rather than simply attending them.

For example, kids should help with preparing family dinners—not just sit through them. They could assist in creating a grocery list, rather than just tagging along while Mom or Dad goes shopping. Encouraging engagement in after-school and other recreational activities or clubs, where kids have the opportunity to interact with other kids around topics they care about, is also important.

Another effective strategy that parents can use to expose their children to a variety of social interactions is through volunteering and engagement in charitable activities. This also has the added benefit of teaching kids how to be emphatic about the needs of others and be less self-centered.

Educators, too, have a critical role in facilitating social interactions among students. Developing an inclusive learning environment that makes students feel welcome and valued is paramount.

Additionally, educators can facilitate a wide range of opportunities for kids to practice proper and positive interactions with each other, such as group assignments or role-playing scenarios. Education settings are well-poised to help students learn how to manage and navigate social situations, such as listening, conflict resolution, and overall respectful and effective communication techniques.

What Can We Do As a Community?

After the mass-shooting tragedy, Michigan State University and its community came together to support each other in coping with its aftereffects. The power of community support is undeniable. As a society, we need to learn how to harness this communal power to support each other before a tragedy strikes.

We should first be aware of social isolation as a contributor to the increase in violent crime since the pandemic. We often notice warning signs when people withdraw from society—the neighbor we don’t see that much anymore, or the colleague that’s basically checked out. But we don’t always truly pay attention or take action, and we need to do that.

By taking the initiative to reach out to those who appear to be distant or disconnected, we can demonstrate that we care and that we are willing to help. We all should be accountable for fostering a more inclusive, connected, and compassionate community. Taking a proactive approach to social isolation can help to reduce its effects and create a healthier, safer environment for everyone. By working together as a community and supporting one another, we can create a safer and more interconnected society for all.

To sum up, considering the raging levels of violent crime and the rise of mass shootings, we owe it to ourselves to examine the effect of social isolation on extremely violent behaviors seriously and systematically, and, consequently, develop tools to mitigate some of these effects.


Dollete, S., & Phillips, M. (2004). Understanding girls’ circle as an intervention on perceived social support, body image, self-efficacy, locus of control and self-esteem. The Journal of Psychology, 90(2), 204–215.

Gilovich, T., & Gallo, I. (2020). Consumers’ pursuit of material and experiential purchases: A review. Consumer Psychology Review, 3(1), 20-33.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological review, 50(4), 370.

Newman, K., & Fox, C. (2009). Repeat tragedy: Rampage shootings in American high school and college settings, 2002-2008. American behavioral scientist, 52(9), 1286-1308.

Novotney, A. (2019). Continuing education the risks of social isolation. Monitor on Psychology, 50(5), 32-37.

Peterson, J., & Densley, J. (2021). The violence project: How to stop a mass shooting epidemic. Abrams.

Pietrabissa, G., & Simpson, S. G. (2020). Psychological consequences of social isolation during COVID-19 outbreak. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 2201.

Saltzman, L. Y., Hansel, T. C., & Bordnick, P. S. (2020). Loneliness, isolation, and social support factors in post-COVID-19 mental health. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(S1), S55.

More from Ayalla Ruvio Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today