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The Bystander Effect In The Cellphone Age

A house is on fire. Do you rush to warn residents who might still be inside, or do you stop to take a picture? (Judith Harris/Courtesy)
A house is on fire. Do you rush to warn residents who might still be inside, or do you stop to take a picture? (Judith Harris/Courtesy)
This article is more than 4 years old.

It was the start of the third inning between two teams in the Pony division of the Jamaica Plain Regan Youth League. The pitcher for the JP Seafood Pirates was warming up at Murphy Field, and his teammates were throwing grounders to each other. Suddenly, the catcher remarked, “Yo, there’s a fire going on!”

It was a bench clearing moment. Members of the Matt Gore Real Estate Orioles joined their rivals in right field, gazing in disbelief as vivid orange flames shot off the roof of a triple-decker, some 300 feet down Child Street. A coach and other adults called 911, and parents abandoned the game and rushed toward the scene.

When my husband first ran toward the burning house, he noticed a passerby taking pictures. 'Wow, look, a fire!' the man said, walking around to get a good angle for his shots.

There were no emergency vehicles there yet. No smoke alarm sounded in the building. My husband ran toward the house, yelling from a half-block away. He rushed up the front stairs, rang the doorbells for all three apartments, and pounded the front door.

A bewildered woman, wondering why an agitated stranger was telling her to leave, opened the door to the first floor apartment.

“I kept telling her, ‘You’ve got to get out right now,’ ” my husband said. She left the house with her sister and a sleepy toddler. My husband asked the woman if anyone else was at home upstairs. Were there any elderly residents, who might not hear his yelling? No, he was told. My husband stepped into the entry way of the building and yelled as loudly as he could up the stairs.

Judith Harris: "Have our new-found instincts to document everything on our phones heightened the bystander effect, because we’re almost always connected to others online?" (Tim Caynes/flickr)
Judith Harris: "Have our new-found instincts to document everything on our phones heightened the bystander effect, because we’re almost always connected to others online?" (Tim Caynes/flickr)

The resident was able to reach her upstairs neighbors by phone. No one else was in the burning building — except for a cat on the top floor. After they’d been outside for several minutes, the smoke from the rooftop fire reached a smoke alarm, and it went off.

The drowsy toddler asked for her shoes.

When my husband first ran toward the burning house, he noticed a passerby taking pictures. “Wow, look, a fire!” the man said, walking around to get a good angle for his shots. Later, more people converged, holding their cellphones aloft. My husband was incredulous that no one else thought to try to warn the residents, but instead were documenting the events for social media. (The next day, I read an article on a local website that began, “A quick-acting JP resident took photos of flames bursting out the roof of a Child Street home…”)

Was this a modern-day version of 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.” Have our new-found instincts to document everything on our phones heightened the bystander effect, because we’re almost always connected to others online? Witnesses capture videos of police brutality, which become important social media tools. But should this type of citizen journalism also apply to videoing a fire that’s just begun, without thinking of lives that might be at risk?

I, too, was one of the picture-takers.

...should this type of citizen journalism also apply to videoing a fire that’s just begun, without thinking of lives that might be at risk?

The rooftop flames receded, but thick black smoke continued to funnel upward. Firefighters arrived. No one was injured. The third floor residents returned to the scene. According to the brother of one of my son’s teammates, the missing cat was safe and delivered in a carrier to its owners.

Fire officials pinned the blaze on a cigarette discarded in a roof-top planter. Damage was estimated to be around $100,000. Seven people were displaced from their homes.

The Regan Youth League baseball game a half-block away resumed with its albeit distracted 13- to 15-year-old players. The Orioles, who were at bat, managed to focus. The Pirates, who were in the field, faced the oncoming emergency vehicles and didn’t fare as well that inning. But they went on to win by a run in the bottom of the seventh.

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Judy Harris Cognoscenti contributor
Judy Harris is a writer, audio producer, and homeschooling-mother. Her work has appeared in several magazines, and she has done production for the BBC, PRI, Houghton Mifflin, Perseus Books, and Monitor Radio.

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