Are We Raising Bystanders?


Recently several incidents have occurred in the media and to people whom I know and it is making me ponder upon the issue of us, as people, being bystanders. As a human race, do we have the courage that it takes to step up and do something when we see injustice occurring?

The bystander effects refers to the phenomenon that the more people present in a social situation, the less likely they are going to help someone during a time of distress. The bystander phenomenon has been portrayed in historical events such as the Holocaust, the beating of Rodney King, the prisoners of Abu Gharib, the genocide in Rwanda and countless others. Perhaps one of the more infamous examples of the bystander effect is the case of Kitty Genovese, a New York City woman who was stabbed by her home in Queens, NY in the early morning of March 13, 1934. She had apparently yelled for help and while several people had claimed that they heard her, no one had called for help until several minutes but at that point it was too late.

In a more recent event on Christmas Day of 2010, a 42 year old woman by the name of Simone Back posted on her Facebook status “Took All My Pills Be Dead Soon So Bye Bye Everyone.” Not one of her 1082 Facebook friends called to check in on her or called emergency services despite commenting on her status. Some of these friends lived within walking distance from her house but still did not come over to check on her or call her. On the contrary, people mocked her on her Facebook page and told her that this was a choice she was making, further debunking the myth that people that really want to kill themselves, don’t tell others. Seventeen hours later the police broke into her apartment and found her dead. This is yet another one of the many examples that we hear of and encounter everyday as people of this world and fail to do what we are supposed to do, intervene, show concern, show empathy.

One can’t talk about the bystander effect without talking about the issue of bullying. Bullying has been on a rise at schools and unfortunately many kids are bullied in the presence of other children. According to the US Department of Education, there are at least 60,000 students that avoid going to school every day for fear of bullying. An even more shocking statistic is that 25 percent of schools report that they have had problems with bullying. Well, even though bullying was going on even when I was young (and god knows I had my share) let’s just say that people are more cognizant of it now and are speaking up about it. Back in the day, we were told that kids are just being kids and are doing what kids do which is mock and tease each other. What we are learning now, and that too through several tragic incidents, that this type of behavior has long term effects on children. The suicide rates alone for young people is alarming and at an all time high. In the media we have learned of several gay youth committing suicide because of their experience of bullying. In a tragic case last year, 16-year-old Sladjana Vidovic committed suicide not because she was gay but because she was from Croatia and the children from her school teased her relentlessly for her accent and for being culturally different. Just a few weeks ago, 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer committed suicide as a result of gay bullying. The long, profoundly shocking list continues.

We constantly hear incidents where a person is lying in the middle of the street and people are just walking by them not enquiring about the well-being of that person. Children in schools are being bullied everyday and other kids are afraid to speak up for fear of their own bullying or for a need to fit in, or to “not get involved.”

I ask myself as a mom and as a psychologist, are these lessons that I want to impart to my children? Do I want them to be an innocent bystander when injustice occurs or do I want them to take a risk and try to help the person who is in need? I have discussions with my children about this all the time. I tell my older son to watch out for the younger kids on the bus and to make sure that his friends are not being teased. Even my then five year old spoke up last year when her friend was being harassed by another child at her school. I know I am doing something right by having these conversations but at times, I don’t think I am doing enough.

One of the things that I tell my children, and my myself is that it is so easy to walk away from a problem that could be completely disconnected to what you are experiencing but it still does not make the problem go away. So why don’t we intervene, why don’t we step in? For me, the times that I haven’t done that it is because I think the situation is too dangerous or that someone else will step in. Of course in those situations, I am even more angry at myself for not reaching out, for not making the situation better.

So how do we avoid being a bystander and making sure our children are not bystanders in situations where they perceive injustice. There have been several studies done on the bystander effect but one of the things that I have garnered from my interest in this topic is that humanistic qualities such as empathy, social responsibility, fairness, and activism are not just things that are innate but they can be taught. With that knowledge, we can teach our child to speak up when he/she sees someone else being bullied. At times, this will be scary but it is necessary for them to not only be smart about how they intervene but also proactive. If they feel like they can’t intervene immediately, they should entrust this responsibility to a caring adult whom they know will handle the situation effectively.

Furthermore, we can teach ourselves that historically people DO NOT step up when they see injustice occurring. This inability to intervene increases tenfold when we are in the presence of a group of people. I have to remind myself in these situations that if I don’t step up then perhaps no one else will and can I live with myself if something horrific happens? Most likely it would be difficult to do so.

This world was built on activism and people have received freedoms as the result of it and in the words of the beloved Desmond Tutu “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Let’s not be afraid to speak up, to be proactive, and to protect one another.


This article was originally published at . Reprinted with permission from the author.