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Are Smartphones Increasing The Bystander Effect?

bystander effect

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Are Smartphones Increasing The Bystander Effect?

People record crimes on their smartphones instead of stepping in and helping–who is to blame?

Whether on social media or in traditional media, there’s one thing you might have noticed – in recent times, chances of people recording crimes instead of helping victims on site, have increased. And since the recording device is always a smartphone, the question is imminent: is the ubiquitous smartphone responsible for this apathy?

What is the bystander effect?

According to Psychology Today, “The bystander effect occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation.” The term was popularised by social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley after the infamous Kitty Genovese murder in 1964 in Queens, New York.  And with the prevalence of smartphones, we have now moved into the age of digital bystanding! We are now watching crimes behind our screens. And whether the incident is prerecorded or being live streamed, we are not doing  a thing to stop it.

Millennials’ take on the bystander effect

Often when we get hooked to or obsessed with something, we lose sight of everything else. It’s not as if we do it on purpose; this blindsiding happens quite naturally. Poet Kabir Deb blames this behaviour on the addictive nature of smartphones: “When Martin Cooper invented the mobile phone, he wouldn’t have thought that his invention would have such a drastic effect on the whole society. A device invented to connect people has now taken a turn to disconnect people, with ease and ferocity. We are so deeply immersed in maintaining our virtual social status that we have forgotten about our real world relationships and duties.”

However, we cannot put our conscience at ease by blaming everything on our overuse of phones. As civilised beings, we have some responsibilities which we cannot ignore if we want to maintain basic justice and order in society. Chartered Accountant Aman Prakash Singh agrees and questions the people who indulge in  such activities, “Yes, smartphones to a huge extent have made us less humane in recent years. Capturing moments with your loved ones is what everybody longs for, so as to cherish them in years to come, but capturing a crime and spreading it just for the sake of creating a buzz is of no use.”

He adds, “To the people who capture horrific incidents instead of helping the victim: what use is that video that you recorded? Is getting it viral on social media and  then taking out a candle march or protest for the victim’s sake a substitute for trying to stop the crime in the first place? I agree that it might prove to be an evidence against the culprit, when caught and brought in front of the judge during trial. However, if (the onlookers) would just take a step forward and help the victim or fight against the crime on the spot, maybe the victim won’t have to become a victim, maybe they won’t suffer that crime, be it rape, acid attack, robbery or an accident.”

All in all, I think that although some people are unaware of what is going on around them when they are using their smartphones in public places, most people are only giving in to the human need for putting self-preservation above everything else. So basically, these viral crime videos are simply capturing the apathy that’s always been there in humankind.

As I see it, the only way to put a stop to the bystander effect in both the real world and the digital world is for every individual to take moral responsibility seriously. Instead of waiting for someone else to make a move, each one of us should be brave enough to step forward and take some action to stop the crime. Even the smallest act could help save someone, and is certainly better than doing nothing at all.

Image Credit: Nikhil Mudaliar




Mahevash Shaikh is the twenty-something author of Busting Clichés. She loves to write, draw and laugh (among other things). You can find her using words and pictures to express herself and redefine the word "normal" at

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