The holidays are a wonderful time for a number of reasons. Everyone is in a celebratory mood and often together in group situations. This can happen at the family holiday table or at a school event. Why not use this time as an opportunity to have a discussion with our own kids or our students about how kids, teens, and even adults are bullied while hundreds of people stand by passively, observe the bullying, and do nothing? And, yes this does in some cases result in suicide due to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. How on earth did we get to the point where we watch or hear about others getting tormented and stand by idly?
Consider the following recent events:
A few weeks ago a 10-year-old girl named Ashlynn Conner was being bullied at Ridge Farm Elementary School and in her neighborhood in Ridge, Illinois. Her mom is reported to have denied her request to be home-schooled because she was unaware of the extent to which her daughter was being picked on. Tragically and much to the mom's horror, Ashlynn resolved the issue on her own by hanging herself in her closet the next day. Yes, she was successful in that endeavor. She is dead by suicide and that is final and forever. A chapter and a young life were closed prematurely in a matter of minutes.
Two weeks ago, 18 year old Ashley Bilasano committed suicide after a series of tragic events. She reported that she had been molested by a family member and forced into prostitution. She is also reported to have sought out the help of authorities to no avail as there were no charges brought against those that she reported were victimizing her. Child Protective Services appears not to have been helpful in this case. This is not new behavior for that agency. The workers are overwhelmed and understaffed and kids die when they should have been protected. There is also the larger and startling question of why 500 of this young woman's twitter followers who she reached out to neither called the police nor reached out to help her. She, like 10 year old Ashlynn, took matters into her own hands. She, too, is dead forever and will never again see the sun rise and set.
Just days ago, three men brutally beat up another man on a subway train in Brooklyn, New York as several passengers looked on, moved out of the way, and some even laughed. The only significant action taken by at least one member of the "audience" was to video this dreadful event. Entertainment, anyone?
So, how does psychology explain but not support this passivity in the face of cruelty? For the answers we must look to social psychology which studies the behavior of people in group situations. In situations like those described in the three scenarios above, individuals experience the "bystander effect." The "bystander effect" refers to the phenomenon in which the greater the number of people present, the less likely any one individual is to assist someone in distress. There are two possible explanations for the "bystander effect." The first is that the presence of other people fosters a "diffusion of responsibility." Since there are other observers present individuals do not feel pressure to take action. The second reason is quite ironic. People have a tendency to want to behave in socially acceptable ways. If they don't see others reacting they may then assume that a response would be socially inappropriate. YIKES!
I am grateful to my professors for teaching me about why people behave the way they do. In light of recent tragic events like the ones described above, I believe that it is time not only to look for explanations of passivity but also to re-educate our kids about how to behave in group situations when ANYONE is being hurt. It is everyone's responsibility to take action and we should teach our kids to make no assumptions about what anyone else may be doing. And, the definition of "socially appropriate" needs to be clearly defined. It is "socially appropriate" to be kind, to assist others, and to be part of an active solution. And adults need to be role-modeling this sort of behavior.
During this season of goodwill parents and educators must get on the same page and teach our kids about the dangers of passivity.
Good luck and Happy Holidays!