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Social media and the bystander effect

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When persons in our communities demonstrate acts of apathy and an outright lack of compassion, it causes us to grimace at the thought of possibly needing help and not receiving it, as persons may be more inclined to take out their smart phones and assume the position of media commentators, taping the abuse or demise of another for the purpose of sending it viral on social media.{{more}}

Bystander effect has been widely dealt with in social psychology; it looks specifically at the manner in which people affect one another, both as individuals and as groups, and how the society they form influences people’s behaviour, thoughts and emotions.

The bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon that refers to circumstances in which individuals do not offer their help to a victim when others are present; so, for instance, a woman can be receiving a brutal beating from another woman, while the on-lookers stand around laughing, taping and taking pictures, but not actively doing something to help the victim. Depending on the number of bystanders present, an individual may feel less determined to act. The bystander effect can occur in any interaction with others, both online and in person.

Two big factors that cause the bystander effect are conformity and diffusion of responsibility. First, bystanders need to notice the emergency. Bystanders then need to interpret the situation as one in which action is necessary and then further interpret it as one in which they specifically should act. Next, bystanders need to determine what form the action should take. Finally, they must actually act. At any point in this decision tree, the bystander can cycle back to previous decision points; it is not a linear decision process.

Reasons behind the bystander effect include:

o Uncertainty and consequences – When it is uncertain that someone needs help, the response rates are much lower and the response times are much higher. When it is clear that someone needs help (they are shouting “Help!”, for instance), the response rates are higher. The more specific the request for help, the higher the response rate.

o Understanding of environment – Bystanders who are not familiar with the environment (either the physical location or the circumstances) are less likely to offer assistance.

o Diffusion of responsibility – When people believe that someone else is responsible for an outcome, they are far less likely to intervene. Essentially, when it is someone else’s responsibility, they are less likely to act. Also people tend to diffuse responsibility, in fear of how they will seem around others. Audience inhibition refers to the risk of embarrassment if the situation turns out not to be an emergency.

Individuals actively look to one another for hints about how to behave in the situation. The inaction of others will likely cause the inaction of the individual. These social hints can interact with the other mechanisms to increase the effect. If all individuals are initially inhibited, to the audience all will appear inactive. Every individual will perceive all others as inactive, further inhibiting action.

o Peer pressure Individuals generally conform to group norms. Those who engage in deviant behaviours are often victims of negative sanctions by other group members, who exert pressure in order to obtain conformity. The presence of an audience to his or her actions inhibits the individual from acting. He or she does not want to appear foolish or inappropriate in front of others.

Today, it is very simple to interact with one another through social media, which can be a blessing until people take advantage. Everyone knows that when you write something online, it stays online forever, but yet some do not hesitate to speak their minds, even if their words are so cruel. Social media was meant to be a positive atmosphere where people can connect from all over the world, but sometimes it is a very negative place.

Dr Miller is Health Psychologist at the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital.

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