The Impact of Social Media on the Bystander Effect

Tanzie Bodeen
May 31, 2016 · 5 min read

The bystander effect has always existed. People often wait to gauge the reactions of others to determine their own, or else assume that someone else will intervene or help. Today, people spend more time on social media and messaging applications than they do engaging in face-to-face interactions, so how does this impact the bystander effect? Recent news stories have included individuals live-videoing or Periscoping horrific events, the defendants have claimed the video was to be used as evidence, or that they couldn’t intervene or else they too would fall victims to the crime. Many individuals choose to Snapchat live events rather than indulge in real-life experiences. Does this ring true when individuals witness a crime? More and more shocking events are being graphically displayed, due to witnesses and bystanders filming disastrous events or the aftermath. News anchors no longer are the first to break news. Instead, the first images or reactions can be found online or on social media long before news crews can make it to the scene. In this paper, I will analyze a couple of recent bystander effect situations and tie in relevant articles and sources that link the effect and social media, primarily live video.

Recently, a girl was charged with kidnapping, rape, sexual battery and pandering sexual matter involving a minor for Periscoping the rape of her friend, a juvenile, by a 29-year old male. Instead of assisting her friend or trying to intervene in the rape, she instead filmed a live video of the sexual assault and posted it to her Periscope. Her defense attorney said, “Ms. Lonina had apparently hoped that live-streaming the attack would help to stop it, but that she became enthralled by positive feedback online.” It is disturbing that the defendant thought that the only weapon she had against the rapist was her cell-phone. This trend is becoming more common, with bystanders watching and filming sexual assaults. One explanation from Dara Greenwood states, “The thrill of documenting something that might elicit attention from one’s peers and lead to a feeling of ‘optimal distinctiveness’ may also underlie motivations for posting sensational or unethical behaviors.. Young adults in particular may be vulnerable to this kind of behavior because of the central role that peer approval plays in their life stage.” The need for approval ultimately determines whether a bystander will intervene or document the attack on social media to gain attention and recognition. Adolescents are even more susceptible to the bystander effect, as they rely heavily on peer influence. Peer influence often inhibits them from intervening if none of their friends are intervening, as they fear receiving disapproval from friends. So, when documenting a crime receives positive feedback, as it did in this sexual assault case, the witnesses are more likely to keep watching and not intervene. Often people wonder if the platforms are at all to blame, as they are the ones publishing content that should be censored. However, these social media platforms receive way too much content at any given moment to be able to successfully censor content being submitted. A recent example of this was twitter banning certain hashtags that are commonly associated with illicit content, or that generate too much traffic to where Twitter is unable to censor the content.

Another common occurrence that takes place both on the internet and real life is bullying, although cyberbullying is particularly more aggressive. There have been multiple accounts of students being bullied on live video, which is then posted for other individuals to view, which prolongs the bullying and allows other individuals to join in on the taunting. Unfortunately, many of these documented incidents have resulted in the suicide of the victim. Periscope seems to be a particularly susceptible medium for bullying and sexual harassment, as viewers can comment in real time. Since the application’s release in March of 2015, it has been laden with complaints of inappropriate and nasty comments, mostly directed towards women. Unfortunately, bullying is also susceptible to the bystander effect, in which students witness or even join in on bullying to avoid negative reactions from their peers. This becomes even easier online by hiding behind a computer, phone, or tablet screen. Recently, Goodby and Silverstein rolled out an anti-bullying campaign that targeted the witnesses of cyberbullying. With collaboration from Apple and Adobe, the campaign created an emoji to help witnesses speak out against cyberbullying by placing the watching eye emoji on a thread that contained bullying, in an attempt to show support for the victim. I was lucky enough to hear Bonnie Wan, Director of Strategy and Associate Partner at Goodby and Silverstein, talk about the inspiration of the campaign, which was built around the insight that more people were witnessing versus intervening in cyberbullying online.

Social mediums have a huge influence over our society and culture, especially to those generations who are very socially savvy yet also very susceptible to peer influence. Many millennials and even younger generations place emphasis on online interactions, such as likes and comments, and feel that those responses reflect their self-worth. Many kids find themselves, “getting caught up in the likes,” and forget to engage in real-life interactions, such as intervening in a time of crisis or need. As live-video platforms continue to develop and improve, we must educate individuals on how to use these mediums properly and how to spot hazardous situations in which filming might not be appropriate. Peer approval will always be a token part of our culture, but we must determine ways in which we can get children and adults to appropriately intervene in situations without fearing disapproval or ultimately becoming another victim. The bystander effect will only continue to worsen as filmers get credited with being the first to film horrific events, when they could have easily intervened, no matter the situation. As these posts go viral, the likes and comments help to fuel the desire of the filmers to witness more events of the same nature, and also displays to others the glory that comes with being the first on a crime scene. Those who capture events are slowly being punished in the court of law, but will these stories be enough to deter witnesses from becoming bystanders? This is an answer that I don’t think currently exists. Society must decide the role of social media in culture, and decide how to educate social media users to properly and legally use their social media for private purposes, versus the desire of publicity and fame.


Kingkade, Tyler. “Why Would Anyone Film A Rape And Not Try To Stop It?”The Huffington Post 21 Apr. 2016: n. pag. Print.

Nudd, Tim. “IOS 9’s Puzzling Eye Emoji Is Explained: It’s the First Ever Made for a Social Cause.” AdWeek. Adweek, n.d. Web. 25 May 2016.

Rahman, Farida. “Turns out Bullies Are a Bigger Problem than Bots on Periscope.” Medium. N.p., 09 Feb. 2016. Web. 25 May 2016.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store