Coined in 1969 by John Darley, and Bibb Latane, the Bystander Effect is a psychological phenomenon that refers to the tendency of individuals to be less likely to intervene in emergencies when there are other people, or bystanders present. However, the bystander effect has made its way into the online world as a result of the advancement of technology and the widespread use of social media. Research has shown that, in online environments, individuals are less likely to intervene when someone is being cyberbullied when there are a large number of online bystanders present. Thousands and even millions of people witness terrible human behavior online every day but not many do much about it (Hendricks, 2014). While the bystander effect is a well-documented phenomenon in offline situations, not much has been researched about it in digital scenarios.
Its Presence in the Online World
The Bystander effect has evolved to take on many new dimensions that affect how users react and behave in online situations as a result of technological advancements and the rise in social media usage. In the digital age, the effect captures instances of cyberbullying and online harassment (Bem, 2023). Although it is similar to the bystander effect in its traditional sense, the digital version appears distinct. In contrast to the real world, where people can gauge the seriousness of a situation based on body language, verbal cues, and facial expressions, the online environment lacks these cues, making it challenging for users to make such judgments. Another characteristic specific to the online bystander effect is anonymity. Individuals can appear anonymous in online media by hiding behind their screen name or avatar. The sense of accountability and duty that exists in traditional environments is further diminished as a result.
There are a number of causes for the digital bystander effect. First, one of the major factors influencing the effect online is the diffusion of responsibility. Similar to physical settings, an online environment with more people present can result in a diffusion of responsibility as each person feels less accountable for their actions. Additionally, as previously mentioned, the lack of non-verbal cues and ambiguity in online interactions can amplify the bystander effect. Empathy, a key predictor of bystander behavior, may decline in the absence of contextual information.
Additionally, bystanders may find it challenging to help in an emergency due to the lack of physical presence. Witnesses who are likely to take physical action in real-world settings might be unsure of how to act appropriately online (Lytle et al., 2021). Evaluation apprehension also affects bystander behavior where the refusal to step in when someone is being cyberbullied or harassed is further exacerbated by the fear of facing backlash and damage to their online reputation (Bem, 2023). Additionally, social media algorithms frequently favor content that has the potential to go viral. Instead of rebutting such content, users share, comment on, or like it. This promotes its growth and amplifies content that is emotionally charged, which encourages users to observe rather than participate in the conversations.
In today’s hyper-connected society, the digital bystander has daunting consequences for our online behavior. With bystanders less likely to intervene or report instances of harassment, there is an increased possibility of cyberbullying. According to a UNICEF survey, online bullying affects more than 33% of youngsters in 30 different countries (Kaur & Saini, 2022). Users can encourage harmful online behavior by merely “liking” an offensive post, giving the bully the impression that they are more powerful. This further legitimizes negative behaviors like hate speech and trolling. Moreover, lack of assistance during bullying incidents makes the victim feel even more alone and helpless. Another negative effect of the digital bystander effect is the spread of false information. If misinformation is left unchecked, it can easily result in misunderstandings or even harmful outcomes. The digital bystander effect extends outside of the online sphere and can have detrimental effects on the real world. By supporting harmful behavior, bystanders foster a society in which people can engage in hateful behavior without being concerned about the fallout. Furthermore, people might believe they cannot depend on others for support, which undermines trust in online communities. This causes a withdrawal from online communities and a reluctance to engage in them.
What Can Be Done?
As we are becoming increasingly dependent on technology and social media, combating the bystander effect in the online world has become a pressing concern. It becomes an individual responsibility to report harmful content for the authorities to take appropriate action against the relevant stakeholders. Furthermore, reaching out privately to the target of online harassment and offering empathy, encouragement, or resources to help them cope with their situation is another possible method of intervening (Bem, 2023). Institutions and parents play critical roles in raising awareness and educating children about the dangers of cyberbullying, trolling, and harassment. Another crucial skill that needs to be taught at a young age is having empathy and compassion for those who are distressed. Additionally, users can alter the conversation’s topic before or when it becomes out of control. This can stop the spread and escalation of hateful content.
To conclude, the bystander effect is not limited to the physical world anymore but also extends to the digital realm. Realizing the effects of this phenomenon and considering our online behavior is essential. We can build a more compassionate community and work together to address the drawbacks of this phenomenon by developing a sense of responsibility in our online communications. It is important to remember that being the bully is wrong, but so is not stepping in to cease bullying when it happens to someone else.
“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” – Elie Wiesel
Ms. Anusha Guru and Dr. Garima Rajan
Department of Psychological Sciences, FLAME University, Pune