The bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon in which people are less likely to offer help in an emergency situation when other people are present. The probability of help is inversely proportional to the number of bystanders.
With millions of Internet users communicating through social network environments everyday, the bystander theory may not remain a valid theory for online social networking. Because people are joining these communities to make friends, these people are more inclined to come to the aid of a friend or distant contact if a personal emergency were discovered.
The challenge we face online is how millions of nonprofessionally trained folks determine the validity of a “call for help,” and how do these users know if someone else has acted on a potentially serious “call for help.” We could have a “Digg” format where users responding to an apparent serious communication click a “helped” button, making visible their response to help someone.
Does the Bystander Rule apply to Internet users? Is it time for the formalization (accountability) of “calls for help” on the Internet?
Because the social networking communities are open to all people that have a computer and Internet connection, it serves as a vehicle for expressing an individual’s feelings on a regular and real-time basis. By allowing an online community member to interact with other members virtually, they can freely express thoughts and feelings they may not normally share when in a face-to-face situation offline. It’s like speaking with your psychologist or psychiatrist instead of a family member or friend.
A possible approach, suggested by the American Psychologist, to negate the bystander effect is to pick a specific person in the crowd to ask for help rather than appealing to the larger group. For example, point directly to a specific bystander and give the person a specific task such as, “You in the red shirt, dial 911.” This clarifies the situation and places the responsibility directly on a specific person instead of allowing it to diffuse.
To counter a potential Internet bystander affect, do we need a “First Responder” appointed within each social networking community? The Internet is a growing exponentially, becoming more formalized and less unstructured. In the future there may be an increasing need for a specific point of contact in social networking communities to defuse emergency situations. A “First Responder” could be localized for language purposes on a country-to-country basis.
It may be too soon to tell if the bystander rule applies to online social networking communities, but one can assume that because a community member is not physically near the person in need of help, and because they joined a community to build and maintain relationships, the likelihood of a bystander (member) helping in a crisis situation may increase instead of decrease.
In the future, we may see social networking environments such as FaceBook, MySpace, or Twitter employing a first level “call for help” support option within its virtual environment, or a team of around-the-clock psychologists on duty to review incoming “calls for help.” If this model takes affect, we may also be asked to sign a waiver that relinquishes responsibility on the part of the social networking company so that the company is not responsible for interventions that do not reach authorities or are not neutralized in a timely manner.
Mental health counseling may be incorporated into the next evolution of the social networking community. A further step in this direction may be a new social networking business model, one supporting psychotherapy counseling professionals and social networking communities that offer a “pay as you go” counseling service to its online community members. With millions of members sharing their daily woes online, this idea could be effective and profitable, and there would be no shortage of clients.