The bystander effect and online social networking

The bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon in which people are less likely to offer help in an emergency situation when other people are present. The probability of help is inversely proportional to the number of bystanders.

With millions of Internet users communicating through social network environments everyday, the bystander theory may not remain a valid theory for online social networking.  Because people are joining social networking communities to make friends, these people are more inclined to come to the aid of a friend or distant contact if personal emergency were discovered. The challenge that we face online is how millions of nonprofessionally trained folks determine the validity of a “call for help”, and how do these users know if someone else has acted on a potentially serious “call for help”. We could have a “Digg” format where users responding to an apparent serious communication click a “helped” button making visible their response to help someone.

Does the Bystander Rule apply to Internet users? Is it time for the formalization (accountability) of “calls for help” on the Internet?

Because the social networking communities are open to all people that have a computer and Internet connection, it serves as a vehicle for expressing an individuals feelings on a regular and real-time basis. By allowing an online community member to interact with other members virtually, they can freely express thoughts and feelings they may not normally share when in a face to face situation off line. It’s like speaking with your psychologist or psychiatrist instead of a family member or friend.

A possible approach suggested by the American Psychologist to negate the bystander effect, is to pick a specific person in the crowd to ask for help rather than appealing to the larger group. For example, point directly to a specific bystander and give the person a specific task such as, “you in the red shirt, dial 911.” This clarifies the situation and places the responsibility directly on a specific person instead of allowing it to diffuse.

To counter a potential Internet bystander affect do we need a “First Responder” appointed within each social networking community? The Internet is a growing exponentially, and becoming a more formalized and less unstructured. In the future there may be increasing need for a specific point of contact in social networking communities to defuse emergency situations; a “First Responder” could be localized for language purposes on a country to country basis.

Does the bystander rule apply to online social networking communities? It may be too soon to tell, but one can assume that because a community member is not physically near the person in need of help, and because they joined a community to build and maintain relationships, the likely hood of a bystander (member) helping in a crises situation may increase as apposed to decrease.

In the future, we may see social networking environments such as FaceBook, MySpace, or Twitter employing a first level “call for help” support option within its virtual environment, or a team of around-the-clock psychologists’ on duty to review incoming “calls for help.” If this model takes affect, we may also be asked to sign a waiver that relinquishes responsibility on the part of the social networking company, so it is not responsible for interventions that do not reach authorities, or become neutralized in a timely manner.

Mental health counseling may be incorporated into the next evolution of the social networking community –

A further step in this direction may be a new social networking business model, one supporting psychotherapy counseling professionals and social networking communities that offer a “pay as you go” counseling service to its online community members. With millions of members sharing their daily woes online, this idea could be effective and profitable, and there would be no shortage of clients.

The following are internet and non internet related “call for help” situations, where some people initiated a “call for help,” and others did not.

Call for help via the internet

NPR Linton Weeks) -January 8, 2009 • Alarm bells went off Sunday night for readers of a Twitter message by a woman known on the Web as Thordora. She writes a “mommy blog” — Spin Me I Pulsate — about the triumphs and tribulations of domesticity. In a tweet, Thordora asked, “If I smother my 3 year old, who will NOT GO TO F****** SLEEP, is it REALLY a crime?”

Over the next two hours, a new kind of Web story unfolded — including a real-world visit by police to check the child’s safety. Someone plugged in to the network of bloggers and Twitter apparently knew the identity of Thordora and called the police in her locale. Thordora explained her side of the story on her blog. She was tired, she wrote, and she had “yelled, threatened and cajoled” her 3-year-old daughter to get into bed. At 11 p.m. the police came to her house. Thordora opened the door to her daughter’s bedroom and showed the sleeping child to the police to prove her child was OK. “So lesson learned ladies,” Thordora wrote. “Don’t do any venting in public. Don’t network. Don’t show anything LESS than perfect bliss…”

Suicide in front of a Webcam:

When Abraham Biggs committed suicide in front of a Webcam in November 08, some internet users texted messages egging him on.

Online intervention:

Ayelet Waldman, also a bipolar mother, received help and encouragement from people on the Internet several years ago when she admitted to suicidal tendencies in her blog. She has written a book about the experience called Bad Mother.

In an interview with NPR in December (2008), Waldman said, “I think we’re just beginning to understand how we can participate in something that is so widespread and in such a community, while at the same time being ourselves in a very intimate place. I mean, you’re home or at the office, you’re also — you are participating in a community that in many cases is much larger than your regular live-action community.”

Stanford’s Professor Fogg says, “My students tell me — and I’m starting to notice — that people use FaceBook as a ‘call for help’ quite frequently.” So what is the responsibility of someone who reads an alarming blog entry or e-mail or tweet like Thordora’s? “I would have done something,” says Fogg. “For one thing, she was talking about a child. We all feel a responsibility toward children. It makes everyone perk up. If she were to get drunk and go out driving, that would be different. Yes, it would be a concern to people — and dangerous on the road — but not in the same way.” But, suggests, in this case, “I would turn the coin over. I would tell her if she is going to post this kind of writing online, she needs to accept the fact that people will misinterpret it.” The responsibility rests on the blogger, the Twitterer, Fogg states. He suggests that people will take action and help others who sound like they are in trouble — on or off the internet. “That’s just normal human behavior.”
The Bystander Rule in the non Web space:

San Francisco Chronicle – TORRANCE, Calif. (AP) 2008

A dozen bystanders rushed in to help a 70-year-old man after he stumbled leaving a Southern California bank, causing thousands of dollars to scatter in the wind. Ludwig Geier says hundreds of bills were “gone in no time,” flying through the air and littering the First National Bank’s parking lot in Torrance on Monday. Almost immediately, about a dozen bystanders rushed in to help. The machine shop owner says about 96 percent of the money was found. Geier says he’s going to pray for those good Samaritans, adding, “If I could get them together, I’d buy them dinner and drinks.”

Wichita, Kan. (AP):

As stabbing victim LaShanda Calloway lay dying on the floor of a convenience store, five shoppers, including one who stopped to take a picture of her with a cell phone, stepped over the woman, police said. The June 23 situation, captured on the store’s surveillance video, got scant news coverage until a columnist for The Wichita Eagle disclosed the existence of the video and its contents Tuesday. Police have refused to release the video, saying it is part of their investigation.

“It was tragic to watch,” police spokesman Gordon Bassham said Tuesday. “The fact that people were more interested in taking a picture with a cell phone and shopping for snacks rather than helping this innocent young woman is, frankly, revolting.”

The woman was stabbed during an altercation that was not part of a robbery, Bassham said. It took about two minutes for someone to call 911, he said. Calloway , 27, died later at a hospital. The district attorney’s office will have to decide whether any of the shoppers could be charged, Bassham said. It was uncertain what law, if any, would be applicable. A state statute for failure to render aid refers only to victims of a car accident.

Eagle columnist Mark McCormick told The Associated Press, he learned about the video when he called Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams. He called to ask about a phone call he had received from a reader. The reader was complaining about a Police Department policy that requires emergency medical personnel to wait until police secure a crime scene before rendering aid. McCormick said Williams then unloaded on him about the shoppers in the stabbing case.”This is just appalling,” Williams told the newspaper. “I could continue shopping and not render aid and then take time out to take a picture? That’s crazy. What happened to our respect for life?”

ABC News LAUREN COX and RADHA CHITALE on June 6, 2008 reported

Yesterday’s release of surveillance video depicting a 78-year-old hit-and-run victim lying in the street but ignored by onlookers and motorists has sparked a public debate over the humanity and the responsibility of the city’s residents. Police release surveillance video of the crime in hopes of catching the driver.

Hartford, Conn., Mayor Eddie A. Perez announced his disgust Thursday after watching the footage, showing several cars swerving to avoid Angle Arce Torres, who was lying paralyzed and bleeding from the head. But while Perez calls such negligence “horrific,” those onlookers may not know how to act in such a medical emergency, or why their instincts tell them to stay put. Waiting in the Wings City officials told the Hartford Courant that four people called 911 to report last Friday’s incident — that may not always be enough in an emergency situation.

Tragically, some experts say the public’s inaction is a classic social occurrence. “It’s kind of a textbook case of bystander phenomenon,” says John Darley, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University.

Reasons why bystanders in groups fail to act in emergency situations –

There are many reasons why bystanders in groups fail to act in emergency situations, but social psychologists have focused most of their attention on two major elements. Wikipedia experts suggest that according to a basic principle of social influence, bystanders monitor the reactions of other people in an emergency situation to see if others think that it is necessary to intervene. Since everyone is doing exactly the same thing (nothing), they all conclude from the inaction of others that help is not needed. This is an example of pluralistic ignorance or social proof. The other major obstacle to intervention is known as diffusion of responsibility.  This occurs when observers all assume that someone else is going to intervene and so each person feels less responsible and refrains from doing anything.

The case of Kitty Genovese is the most famous example of the bystander effect. It is also the case that originally stimulated social psychological research in this area. Ms. Genovese was stabbed to death in 1964 by a serial rapist and murderer. According to newspaper accounts, the killing took place for at least a half an hour. The murderer attacked Ms. Genovese and stabbed her, but then fled the scene after attracting the attention of a neighbor. The killer then returned ten minutes later and finished the assault. Newspaper reports after Genovese’s death claimed that 38 witnesses watched the stabbings and failed to intervene or even contact the police. This event lead to widespread public attention and editorials that the United States had become a cold and uncaring society.

By: Peter Sabbagh


One response to “The bystander effect and online social networking

  1. turnaroundchurches

    On the internet we are all voyeurs. And what involvement there is is minimalistic and shallow. “Click here to vote” and “send to all your friends” lets me keep a degree of anonyminity. I “help” without it costing anything, without soiling my hands with actual dirt or blood.

    It will be an interesting study to examine the conditions that cause people to leave the comfort of the computer and actually show up to help (discounting those whose iPhone lets them show up still digitally connected). Examples include campaign volunteers who were contacted via FaceBook or Meetup, then descended on a rally, circulated a petition or showed up to vote.

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