Social Media and the Bystander Effect

Imagine you’re witnessing something newsworthy like a fight or a burning building. What would be your first instinct? To help, to call the authorities, or to pull out your camera phone to record the event? For many, the answer is to record it on their phone, but why? According to some social psychologists this is a new incarnation of what psychologists call the bystander effect.

The phenomenon was originally studied after the murder of a New York City woman, Kitty Genovese. Thirty people witnessed the violent murder but no one reported it or attempted to help the woman. Psychologists attribute this to the idea that people will not help out if others are present, the bystander effect. In other words, everyone assumes that someone else will, or already has, helped out. In today’s culture, this effect has given rise to the behavior of filming or otherwise documenting an event instead of stepping in. This action is connected to the bystander effect, but on a different level: people believe that documenting an event, like the Stanley Cup riots, and sending it to the authorities is helping out. This may be a step toward being less passive, but still doesn’t prevent the event from happening.

Similarly, the bystander effect may be well at work on sites like Facebook. For example, I’ve seen many friends share their friends’ Kickstarters to urge people to donate money too their projects. However these people don’t usually donate, and instead, they simply share the Kickstarter. According to one article, this is because people believe strongly in their own social capital, that sharing a link is the equivalent of a monetary donation. The article uses the example of Veteran’s Day, and how people on Facebook were suggesting helping veterans. While most everyone would agree to help them, several factors contribute to the bystander effect and prevent anyone from doing so effectively. First, it’s often ambiguous how one can even help, like, people may simply not know how or where to help. Second, social media groups are not tight knit, so if an old acquaintance from high school asks their network to help out with something, people aren’t likely to help if they don’t feel a strong bond with the person. Third, the classic idea of diffused responsibility plays in. If an acquaintance walks up to someone and asks for money for an emergency, one would be likely to help, but online in a network of hundreds, everyone assumes someone else will.

Overall, I don’t believe that social media completely encourages the bystander effect. Take for example the Arab Spring, in which revolution (and action) was fueled and maintained by social media. However, I do agree that it’s dangerous to film a crime instead of helping or assuming that sharing a link is as valuable as donating or attending. 


Social media, mobile phones changing ‘bystander effect’. (2014, March 14). Retrieved from

Social media and the bystander effect. (2013, September 16). Retrieved from

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