Social media, mobile phones changing 'bystander effect'

If someone was in need, would you step in to help, or pull out your phone and record?

The bystander effect

8 years ago
Duration 3:32
New studies suggest social media is spurring people to act - either by taking photos or jumping into action - when something bad is happening, instead of standing back to watch

If someone was in need, would you step in to help, or pull out your phone and record?

That’s the question social psychologists are trying to answer, the CBC’s Chris Brown reports. The bystander effect, a phenomenon studied fervently after the grisly 1964 New York City murder of Kitty Genovese which police initially believed was witnessed by over 30 people, is now being examined through the lens of social media.

Some high-profile cases in B.C. have highlighted passive group behaviour, including the 2011 Stanley Cup riots and two panhandlers being paid $50 to get kicked in the crotch. Video from both events shows people with camera phones watching the events.

“We think of helping as something automatic, something we’d always do,” said Stephen Wright, a psychology professor who studies group dynamics.

“But we often don’t.”

While nobody stepped in to stop either event, some believe taking video or photos — which often wind up being posted on social media — isn’t a form of intervening. 

“You can look at this as people being less passive,” said Alfred Hermida, a journalism professor at the University of British Columbia.

“They’re saying, ‘If I document this, this might help police. If I document this, it might help bring the right people to justice.’”

What can spur people into action and away from their screens? Brown reports it’s often the action of one person.