Kitty Genovese was 28-years-old when she died by the hands of her attacker in March of 1964 in New York City, on her way home late at night from her job as a bar manager. Decades later, we still remember Kitty—not merely because of the senseless loss of life or the shockingly prolonged violence that marked her last moments, being stabbed, then hunted down and raped, stabbed more—14 times in total before she died just a few feet from the safety of her apartment. We remember her because that night, neighbors heard her cries for help. They—38 people, reportedly—knew there was a struggle below them on the street and did nothing, some assuming that it was just drunken revelry or a joke; some merely annoyed at the late night disturbance; and others assuming that someone else would intervene.

More than 50 years have passed since Kitty Genevese died. She remains with us, relevant in the Digital Age, because it was on this night that the term—The Bystander Effect—was coined. It’s what happens when we refuse to get involved, even as an obvious wrong is being committed and a victim’s need for help is evident. We do so because we are aware that we are not the only one watching and we assume that someone else will step in.

Today, the internet is like a window on the world as we get to see up close and personal the triumphs and struggles of others. We are like neighbors perched high above the ‘IRL Street’, yelling our annoyance at noise from below, watching silently, maybe cheering with likes, follows and shares, as very real lives are lived out, often times with pain and trauma.

Modern-day examples of The Bystander Effect in the Digital Age:

  • Six young men lured a 15-year-old girl to a house in Chicago and sexually assaulted her there, streaming their crime on Facebook Live, with about 40 people watching in real time. No one called the police to help this young girl.
  • Also in Chicago, four young people kidnapped and tortured a mentally disabled teenager, streaming the activity on Facebook Live. One commented about not having a large digital audience: “Ain’t nobody watching.”
  • In Columbus, Ohio, an 18-year-old woman witnessed in-person her teenage friend being raped. She didn’t call for help. Instead, she streamed a live video of the assault on the Periscope app. The prosecutor said, “She got caught up in the ‘likes.’”
  • In Los Angeles, a 14-year-old boy was seriously injured in December when he was sucker-punched by another teenager. That assault was recorded by another teenager who then posted the video on Snapchat.
  • In Florida, five teenagers recorded a drowning man, taunting him as he was he dying that they would not call for help and posted the video on YouTube.

From a legal perspective, not intervening or not reporting a crime when it is taking place may or may not be a criminal act, depending on where you live. Even in the cases where a failure to act is considered illegal, it typically applies to a very narrow set of circumstances, say to those who work with children and see crime in the context of their job. This conversation is not about the law. This ‘Tech Talk’ is about consciously defining for yourself what’s wrong and what’s right and committing to personal responsibility.

  • Do we have a responsibility to our neighbors on the internet to care or to act when we see something wrong?
  • From what lens should we view our likes, follows and comments?

In 1997, a 7-year-old girl named Sherrice Iverson was forcibly taken into a casino restroom in Nevada, where she was sexually assaulted and murdered. A witness to the start of the crime said, “I’m not going to get upset over somebody else’s life. I just worry about myself first. I’m not going to lose sleep over somebody else’s problems.” Sound familiar? It does to me. I read something like this in the comments section on digital media almost every day.

Objectively, there is a difference between witnessing a crime in-person and witnessing hardship on the internet. But if the net result is a global society defined by callousness and indifference to humanity, is that difference that all that meaningful?

The Cyberbully Bystander:

This discussion applies to cyberbullying, defined as any kind of bullying that takes place on electronic devices such as phones, computers, and tablets and includes aggressive messages, rumors, embarrassing pictures or videos and fake profiles shared over social media, text messages within games or any other digital communication.

A cyberbully bystanders sees what is happening between a bully and a victim, recognizes it as cyberbullying, but decides not to get involved or thoughtlessly joins in with a like or a follow.

Ask yourself, If you saw someone being hurt on the street, would you: a.) Hurt the person yourself; b.) Walk away assuming someone else would step in; or c.) Would you help the person? If you would help, why should your answer be different when applied to something seen on the internet?

Here’s the thing, if you refuse to take action when you see something wrong online, you are giving the cyberbully power and encouraging him/her to embarrass or threaten their victims because you are not calling them out, reporting them or stopping them.

Despite the fact the internet makes us feel anonymous because we are part of a crowd, we should be accountable for our actions—as if we were standing alone in front of an audience. I’d suggest that the audience you imagine is your parents and grandparents and as you are facing them, ask yourself, what would they think about what you post, AND what you like or comment on. Why? Because cyber ethics responsibility goes beyond the person who creates and posts hateful or threatening content. If you share or comment on malicious content or join, subscribe, or follow online media that is designed to humiliate or harm individuals, you are part of the problem and can fairly be seen as a cyberbully.

Use Your Cyber Super Powers For Good; Be a Cyber Hero:

So, what can you do to ensure that you are not guilty of being a bystander or being seen as a cyberbully? How can you be a cyberhero? In our online worlds, it’s actually not that hard to make a positive difference:

  • Flag inappropriate content and report cyberbullying to the platform
  • Post words of support to the victim
  • Send the victim a DM and encourage them to seek help
  • Tell an adult you trust
  • Never share, like or comment in support of images or video of someone being hurt
  • If you see a crime online, do what you can to get help quickly

If you see something online that does not seem right, and choose to intervene safely to support the person being targeted or let the bully know that his/her behavior is unacceptable, without threats or violence, you will likely inspire more positive actions by others observing the same act/behavior/post. In this way, you, as one person, can have a measurable impact. So stand up to bullying of any kind. #UseYourCyberSuperPowersForGood.

Savvy Cyber Kids educates and empowers digital citizens, from parents and grandparents, to teachers and students. Sign up for our free resources to help you navigate today’s digital world with cyber ethics. See more cyber safety and cyber ethics blogs produced exclusively for EarthLink. Looking for a social media parental control? Try a 30-day free trial of Bark. If you sign up after your trial, Bark donates 25% of your monthly fee to Savvy Cyber Kids.

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