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The Online Bystander Effect

Updated at the bottom

Perhaps too serious a blog post for the days before Christmas, but something that I think needs to be discussed nonetheless.  Feel free to save and read when you’re in a different space.

Like all college freshman who thought they were massively deep, I took an intro to psych course.  And long before we actually got to the unit that covered the story of Kitty Genovese and the concept of the bystander effect, I had sat staring at her picture and scaring myself with the brief story about her murder accompanying her photograph.

In 1964, while at least 12 people watched from their windows or listened from their bedrooms, a woman was murdered in New York, stabbed to death while she screamed for help.  It was 3:15 in the morning, but more than one person served as a witness afterward, and another had shouted at the attacker to leave her alone.  The attack took about a half hour and included a second round of stabbings and a rape.  The woman died on the way to the hospital.

The murder of Kitty Genovese created two ideas–diffusion of responsibility and the bystander effect.  The first is the idea that the more people who witness an event, the less likely help will come because each will believe that another person has already called for help.  The way to counteract this is to direct your request at a certain person.  I was always told to make eye contact with someone or point and scream, “you; call for help.”  Because then responsibility is placed on a person and they are more likely to carry through as to not suffer guilt afterward.  The bystander effect is a similar concept in that the threshold seems (generally agreed) to be three people.  If you have more than three people witnessing a cry for help, people will feel more uncomfortable about jumping in and getting involved.  Fewer than three and you’re more likely to have all three come to your aid.

Which is something I’ve come to notice online.  The support per reader is probably greater the smaller the blog.  While there has been no scientific studies done (as far as I know from a few quick Google searches), I have to believe from anecdotal evidence that while a person with five readers will likely collect four comments on a post that indirectly solicits support, a person with 500 readers may receive 25 comments.  The gap between the number of eyes on the words and the support given is larger in proportion to the readership.

It’s just something I’ve noticed.

This week, a woman tweeted for her followers to call 911 immediately and gave her address in her Twitter feed.  She had been depressed prior to that moment and while some people close to her took action, the vast majority stood around discussing it.  700+ people read the Tweet.  Only a handful called.

And it’s not that people didn’t care about the mental well-being of another person, but a cry for help online requires several elements to line up to be feasible.  One, it requires eyes to see the tweet or blog post.  She may have 700+ followers, but how many had their eyes trained on their Twitter feed in that moment of time?  Two, it requires people to know personal information about you beyond an email address.  This woman provided her home address in the tweet, but for the most part, other stories similar to this one contain a cry for help and the listeners impotent to do something.  I may know your last follicle count or your beta doubling times, but except for a handful of people, I don’t know your home address or phone number or any way to reach where you physically are to help.

Three, everyone needs to overcome the online bystander effect whose pull I think is stronger than the face-to-face bystander effect.  It is too easy to pretend you didn’t see the call for help, to assume someone else already has it covered, to question your intimacy with the person and feel like you’re overstepping a boundary to reach in and help.  If people are squeamish about commenting on a new blog, how brave are we to pick up the phone and call the police in another town to report that someone needs help?

The other side of this that struck me is the psychological implications on the online bystanders.  When there are cries for help in our face-to-face world, they usually come from a person close to us and they come in a private form.  We pick up on a strange vibe and ask what’s wrong.  They send us a note, make a phone call.  Rarely do we have someone stand up in the middle of a church service and frantically announce to 300 parishioners at once that they’re scared they’re going to kill ourselves.

And we do it this way because even though we may rely on our communities for support, we also don’t place the burden of responsibility on the individual members.  We place this burden on those who are supposed to help us with our struggles via unwritten social contracts.  Which is why I think it stings so bitterly when a family member acts callously when you are in deep emotional pain about infertility, but the actions of an office worker usually warrant a scathing blog post or a “you’re never going to believe this” email to a friend.  We expect our family and close friends to come to our aid if we’re considering harming ourselves.  We don’t necessarily expect the man who sits two pews behind us to come to our aid unless he inadvertently crashes into the situation in the right place at the right time.

And yet, not everyone has friends or family in their face-to-face world who are listening to them.  Who are hearing them or expressing care about them.

But how would those 700+ Twitter followers felt if they hadn’t answered her call for help and she had harmed herself?  What responsibility do we have to others in an online community both in terms of giving support and not placing unfathomable amounts of responsibility on a stranger who may be thousands of miles away?

This incident comes on the heels of a mother who tweeted immediately after her son drowned and while these two are not related in the sense that one specifically asked for help from readers while the others connected with followers for support, I couldn’t help but have them move together magnetically in my head.

If you saw that someone was depressed in a blog post, would you click away without leaving words of support? What if there were no comments yet and few comments on older posts?  What if there were already 400 comments in place?  Would that make a difference on your response and why?  In other words, is there an online bystander effect where you feel more responsibility to act in some situations over others?

What is our responsibility to each other as witnesses?  And what is our responsibility to the potential witnesses who encounter our struggles or grief?

In the United States, we have a phone line–1-800-273-TALK (8255) which is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.  All people should know this number and be able to pass it along to a friend–online or face-to-face–in need.


The comments are giving a lot of food for thought.  I just wanted to clarify that I meant specifically a post where someone states that they are depressed, where they are worried about harming themselves, where they think no one cares about them or life would be better off without them.  I’m not talking about posts that relay bad news, or where the person is mourning a loss (either recent or past).  I am talking about the sort of post or tweet where the person is clearly in a place of danger at the time the post was written and without any follow up information, you must assume the person is still in a place of danger.

Which sort of gets to another question.  I have a friend who will call me in a crisis, I will talk her through things, and then she never follows up to tell me how the situation resolved until the next time she returns with a new crisis.  And I have to admit that while I’m worrying between phone calls, trying to reach her and leaving her messages of support, there is another part of me that is constantly annoyed that she leaves me in a state of panic while she knows that she has entered a place of calm.

That has been a similar complaint when crises online arise, including this woman who tweeted that people should call 911 (and to answer Mina, I believe she tweeted it to see if someone would respond–and therefore show the care that was needed.  I think Perez Hilton tweeted instead of calling 911 himself for attention.  If he privately called 911 himself, received aid and kept it quiet, the other person wouldn’t have been “publicly punished”).  A day passed before she posted again that she was okay and at her ex-husband’s house.  There are times when a person can’t get back online and post an update, but there are other times when a long, ominous silence follows a difficult post or tweet, intensifying the fear.  I’m not saying this is an intentional act, but that we need to be mindful that when we involve strangers in our crisis, that we are affecting them psychologically.

Everyone has the choice to walk away from the blogosphere.  You can take all the support you want and then simply disappear without explanation or closure–it is entirely within the person’s right.  But I do think that those who come back and give closure uphold their end of an unwritten social contract.  That it shows that we understand others become invested in our emotional well-being by reading our words and that all people have incredible power to affect others emotionally.  If we’ve worked to foster this connection, it would serve all people involved to give closure to a connection as well.


1 Terry Elisabeth { 12.22.09 at 9:28 am }

In a first-aid class we had heard about this issue and I have never been a witness (visual or by hearing) to something like an accident or spousal abuse without calling 911 since then. I just know people “mind their business” and I take it upon myself to be the one signalling there is a problem and damn the consequences if there are any. I can’t just tell myself someone else is going to call…that’s what everyone tells themselves.

About leaving comments on blogs, since participating to Icomleavwe I am a lot less squeamish about leaving comments. I usually left some to people who suffer from mental health issues because I know how it feels to have no support and be depressed, lonely and afraid. I try to leave comments to the blogs about infertility even if I don’t know what to say all the time. As a bystander, what I read is affecting me a great deal. It brings me food for thought and opens my world. So I try to be present. I do appreciate comments too but they are rare ! But I’m not in diffculty. I have two blogs and the one about being bipolar generates more sympathy than the other one.

Anyway…thank you for blogging about this issue. I think it’s very important.

2 Heather { 12.22.09 at 9:50 am }

Preach. It. Sister!

I adore you.

3 Tally { 12.22.09 at 9:57 am }

Thanks for posting this, Mel. You are astute and awesome.

FWIW, Canada has no single hotline, but people can find local numbers here: http://www.suicideinfo.ca/csp/go.aspx?tabid=77

4 HereWeGoAJen { 12.22.09 at 10:21 am }

Sometimes I worry about not having the right words for a situation. In some cases, it is better to say nothing at all rather than to say something that will cause harm. But I do try to overcome that in cases where I just don’t know what to say and just say SOMETHING.

5 Gayle { 12.22.09 at 10:28 am }

Thanks for the phone number. I’ve been meaning to put it into my contacts for some time now and now I actually did.

6 Rayne of Terror { 12.22.09 at 10:33 am }

I find it a relief to have been a mandatory reporter. I have called DCFS twice because of that and both times DCFS wasn’t interested in my information, but at least I made the call to find out.

7 Guera! { 12.22.09 at 10:36 am }

I worry so much about whether or not the blogger will believe I am sincere in my comments that I let it keep me from leaving something that might be perceived as trite or just empty words. I never leave comments that aren’t sincere but it’s something I worry about it. It hasn’t come to mind until today that not leaving a comment at all is far worse than the very small possibility that my intentions and sincerity might be misunderstood.

8 calliope { 12.22.09 at 11:04 am }

I think if I read a blog post that was a cry for help or a cry for validation or a cry for contact I would go out of my way to comment. I may fail at finding the PERFECT thing to say, but having been on the other end of some depressing posts (as the writer) just knowing that your words are not trees falling in a forest is comforting.

I have to wonder if there is a pause in the tweet world (which I am not really a part of because I am way uncool) because of people wonder if the tweets are real?

9 S { 12.22.09 at 11:05 am }

Being a regular blog reader in the ALI community, I read lots of posts where the writer is depressed. Whether I would leave a comment on the post would probably depend on whether I thought I could give the kind of support the person was seeking, rather than on how many other comments there were. Tone is hard to interpret on the internet, and there are times that I’m in too dark a place myself to effectively give support to others.

That said, I would feel more compelled to leave *some* comment if I saw few or no comments on the post than I would if there were already plenty of comments.

I’m not sure what I think about responsibility toward other bloggers. As you correctly point out, readers are seldom in a position to get the blogger tangible, in-real-life help in any event because we often don’t even know the writer’s real name or location.

10 LCP77 { 12.22.09 at 11:09 am }

I usually only comment if I feel I have something important to contribute. Once I decide to comment, I read others’ comments and determine if what I would say has already been said. If it has, I move on, if not, I comment. There is a little fear because, as an infertile with a baby, I know how those still struggling can get hurt, especially by someone who has been able to have a child ultimately. At that point, my 2 years of struggle don’t matter much because I accomplished my goal and I know that upsets some still struggling… and here I sit wondering if my words will offend anyone.

11 nh { 12.22.09 at 11:44 am }

I don’t know – I comment when I have experience of something, I try to comment when someone is upset (if I read their blog), but if I come to post a week (or even 4 days) after the event, I tend to wonder if me leaving a comment will make a difference. Can I say – it depends?

12 Angie { 12.22.09 at 12:02 pm }

I definitely do not think not commenting means someone is not compassionate, or caring, but sometimes people just have too much they are dealing with on that particular day to be strong enough to offer support. And that should be okay, even as I personally find that offering support and compassion tends to help alleviate my own suffering. It gets me out of my head and helps me acknowledge the suffering and commonality in all of us. As I just heard on NPR about ten minutes ago, loneliness is warning signal that is necessary and important, much like pain and hunger. It means our bodies and souls need to connect with others. I think that is the desperate urgency of many of the blogs I read from babylost mamas; the loneliness of loss means we are compelled to put our smoke signal out to the world and answer the call of others.

I have recently read someone’s blog where they talked about feeling obligated about offering support to other grieving mothers, and I felt absolutely terrible, especially as I received support from this person. It has to come from a place of compulsion. Some of us have that compulsion more than others. And even as I do comment a lot, I some days feel impotent and stymied, and it feel virtually impossible to write anything but XO.

When I read the anecdote about the Tweet, I just thought, “Yes, but someone DID call.” And that is really the point. She got the help she needed in time. That 699 people didn’t call doesn’t quite matter at the end of the day, even though I’d like to think personally that I would be one that called. Just my thoughts on this day in which I am receiving a great deal of support and love. xo

13 The Steadfast Warrior { 12.22.09 at 12:14 pm }

Oh Mel! Don’t make me cry. I think that this is an incredibly inmportant post. As someone struggling with post-partum depression, I will say to everyone that EVERY. SINGLE. COMMENT. HELPS. Truly. It reminds us that we are not alone. So even if 5 or 50 people have already commented, one more does make a difference.

Reading what others have said about this so far, I feel compelled to say a few things:
-If you are in a bad place yourself, do comment. It may be hard, but even something like, “I hear you”, “Ditto”, or “I actually know what you’re going through”, can be powerful to the person’s who’s blog you’re visiting. Knowing that someone can relate to how you’re feeling is an important part of the collective human experience.

-Yes, it can be a difficult situation in an online Community where few of us have direct contact information. This is why I think it’s important to give support early on, not just when things get really bad.

-When we start a blog, for better or for worse, we invite others to be witnesses to our lives. If you’re following a blog, the onus of a response is already there I think. You can’t just be an innocent bystander. Somehow, I think the Community we have doesn’t allow for that.

-We also get into the age old problem of commenting when we’re afraid the person might not want the comment due to where we are in our own life. I can’t speak for others (but I’ve been a part of the heated debate before), but I think, in my opinion, that if someone is truly in need, that if you’re in the throes of IF or Loss, a comment from someone who is pregnant or Parenting after IF or Loss should be just as welcome as those still in the trenches. The point here is that someone is in need. A virtual hug, no matter where it comes from, is a helpful connection between two people. It’s too easy to get caught up in our own fears about how the person will react to us. Sometimes, we need to get out of our own heads and just step up when our fellow bloggers need us.

Did that come off preachy? If so, I’m sorry, but as the person on the other side of this situation (albeit, no where near as bad), I felt compelled to speak up.

14 Pamala { 12.22.09 at 12:16 pm }

I have almost called 911 once for a person who tweeted and blogged something that just didn’t seem right. A friend of the person who lived a few blocks away though before anyone could get to it, posted a comment that she was on her way over and had already called. I came in on it a bit late, which is something that has to be thought about. If someone tweets at 2am that they need help, and I read it at 10am, then should I still call?

I think in these situations, hopefully someone close is nearby, someone who knows the person in real life. It’s hard when you’re reading a blog or a twitter feed to gauge what is severe depression that needs help, or just someone who will be okay.

15 Bree { 12.22.09 at 12:44 pm }

Ironically, I seldom miss commenting on posts that are depression-related, because my TTC journey was so deeply colored by depression and mania. I want the posters to know they’re not alone, that it’s okay to stick with meds if they need to, that it’s okay to explore titration, that it’s okay to reach out for help, that it’s never a failure to take care of yourself.

The ones I have trouble commenting on are those who have been to far darker places than I. Perhaps they’ve experienced an adoption disruption or the death of a child or many failed IVFs or something else that I cannot fathom… I worry that my drive-by comment would actually hurt them more, since I’m already parenting (and consider myself a subfertility survivor).

I think it takes a certain level of confidence and maturity to be able to truly abide with someone (to borrow your word), and I clearly have some growing up to do. In the meantime, I will try to keep the online bystander effect in mind as I’m talking myself out of commenting on something. As always, thanks for thinking and writing about the deep stuff Mel.

16 Jem { 12.22.09 at 1:06 pm }

I have definitely spoken up and urged depressed (but not suicidal) bloggers to get professional psychological help, and hopefully in a way that they could hear it.

Thanks for supplying the 800 number. I’ve copied it into my contacts so I have it at my fingertips, if needed.

17 Hope in Briarrose { 12.22.09 at 1:17 pm }

Everyone should do the right thing and make that call if they think something is wrong. That is just horrible that a women got stabbed to death and noone helped!!

As far as blogging, I think a lot of people feel uncomfortable commenting. If it is something I feel I have wisdom on, I will always surely comment, especially if someone is really down in the dumps like I have been.

18 Brenna { 12.22.09 at 1:22 pm }

Great post, Mel, thanks!

My commenting is based on my own experience–which is that I enjoy comments, even if they don’t say anything much at all. They don’t have to be extraordinarily deep, and if the same thing is said more than once, that’s okay too!

I used to get bogged down in that. After reading a post I’d question whether I had anything valid to contribute via a comment, particularly if some of those amazingly deep commenters had already said things far more helpful than I could come up with. But then I thought, this is also about me wanting that blogger to know that *I* care–even if my comment isn’t perfect or amazingly insightful.

I’m not on Twitter, but that’s quite a story.

19 Mina { 12.22.09 at 1:35 pm }

I am sorry to be the odd egg in the basket, although I usually am. And I must say here that my psych knowledge is limited to that acquired via the teacher training in Uni.

I am not a tweeter, I do not really ‘get’ this kind of social connection, but I do not deny its power or addiction.
This is why I have one question: what precisely is that situation when you are able to tweet for help, but unable to call 911 or 112 in Europe? Tweeting means taking the time to type the cry for help and the address where the 911 call should be directed, but not doing that yourself. In this modern times, if you use internet from a computer, in 95% (or even more) there is a phone around that computer. Or better yet, going online is done on the cell, so the computer is the phone. If you are able to tweet about it and ask someone to send you help, what exactly prevents you from calling 911 yourself, I ask again? IMHO, that is one of the reasons for which more than 600 of the followers did nothing.

One example in this respect, perhaps totally irrelevant, but the only one I know, is the Perez Hilton incident. He got punched in the nose by one of the guys from BEP, deservedly so, since he is a total arse, and what does he do? He tweets ‘OMG, I am being assaulted, somebody call 911’. If you don’t know about it, here is a link of someone commenting about it – http://tremendousnews.com/2009/06/23/while-perez-hilton-tweeted-for-help-these-4-people-called-911/.

I do not deny the authenticity of the cry for help, I am just questioning the methods of getting said help. I think that by tweeting, the drama around the case grows exponentially than by calling the police yourself. I do not want to offend anyone by saying what I have just said, but this is my opinion, which could be wrong, but since I do not have any other facts to change it, I stick to it.

Now, for the comments – I can’t really generalize, so I talk about what I do. When Murgdan got her BFP, she also got some close to 300 comments. I was among them. Afterwards, even though I read her blog religiously and really tap my feet until a new posts sees the light of the blogosphere, I just do not feel any drive to comment anymore, because she is happy, she is content, she is somewhere where I am not yet and I think she does not need my comment to feel like that. I also feel that when there are too many comments, whatever I have to say is, after a second thought, not that important and the world and the blogger could do without.

I almost always comment on a handful of blogs, no matter what they write. I feel a connection to them and even though what I comment is trite (although I try hard not to make it so), it is like maintaining a friendship – you do not have anything important to tell to the other person, but being friends, whatever you have in common makes the trite stuff worth talking about.

I also comment whenever someone goes through something similar to what I have been through and they are angry/lost/sad/desperate and so on – I tell them what I have been through and tell them about a possible outcome to their predicament. No one knows what the future holds, but I know, for example, that after you lose a baby, no matter how many weeks old, as long as you want and love that baby, the number of weeks is just that, a number, so when you lose a baby, for a period of time after that you just cannot be happy again, no matter how you try. You cannot help but cry, and drown in sorrow. And until you reach the bottom of the dark pit your loss dropped you in, you cannot resurface.

I know a person IRL who has a blog (not anonymous) and comments for days on hundreds of blogs, just to keep up his stats. Here in ALI, people don’t do that. They comment when they have something to say, when the bloggers need cheering, encouragement, solace, a shoulder to cry on, a pet on the back, an opinion. ALI is a community apart, because in this field of procreation, no one is spared trouble just because they are rich, famous, beautiful or thin. We are bound by a common desire – babies – and we are mindful of what the road to baby entails and we know how to treat the others just as we want the others to treat us. There is more reciprocation in this community than in any other I know. Here we are not defined by what we have studies, for how many years, how much we gain or for how long we have been (or not) in a relationship, but by our hardships on the way to baby, by our losses, by our heartache, by our tears… Of course, this is just the start, because our true nature comes out to shine in our blogs, and we are more than that. But this is the ground we have in common.

I am sorry, I am simply not able to keep a comment on such a juicy topic to decent proportions… Mel, if you want or feel the need to, please edit it. I have to go shave my legs and get myself ready for a very important meeting with a dildo-cam tomorrow morning. Early, very early. Only 12 hours away. But who’s counting?

Stay well, y’all.

20 Mrs. Spit { 12.22.09 at 1:47 pm }

I sometimes struggle, not with leaving messages of support, but with remembering when someone posts, that they are posting a snapshot, not a movie. That is, a post reflects how they felt at the moment they pushed submit, and that may have changed.

What I struggle with is not so much support, but when I become concerned that someone isn’t coping with grief well, when I begin to wonder if someone does need more professional assistance. I become divided when I look at someone, and I question the decisions they are making, and when I sometimes want to speak up.

So, it’s less about offering support, from my point of view, and more about wondering when I should throw my oar in.

21 chickenpig { 12.22.09 at 2:16 pm }

I was a resident assistant when I was in college. I spent a lot of time, mostly in the middle of the night, talking to students. I counseled young women who had been date raped and brought them to the hospital, I talked to girls who thought they might be pregnant, and sat with them at Planned Parenthood. I sat in the emergency room with students who had slashed their wrists, or overdosed on pills, or drank themselves into a stupor. I also sat with many students with ‘ordinary’ problems, kids whose parents were getting a divorce or who were afraid that their transcripts weren’t good enough. The thing with all of these situations is that I rarely said much of anything. I let them cry on my shoulder, I poured them tea, I promised them that I would never tell their parents/the police/their boyfriends anything. When you see something horrible like the death of child in cyberspace, what is there to say? I wish that there were buttons I could press on my keyboard…I am crying, too, I am holding your hand, getting you a glass of water and tissues, I am sitting right here. I will call who you need me to call, I will make you eat something even though you don’t feel hungry, will pick up your prescriptions, do a load of laundry…whatever you need. Sometimes whether a person has 700 comments or just two, saying “I’m so sorry” it just feels hollow or trite. In those times I think it is better coming from someone who has been there. If I could actually BE there on the other hand….

22 Kristin { 12.22.09 at 3:06 pm }

Preach on Sister Mel! I use to be a paramedic and feel driven to help. I am a compulsive responder and helper. I just couldn’t see a cry for help and not at least try to do something.

23 Em { 12.22.09 at 3:41 pm }

Me too… I think its a social worker thing as well, like Kristin, its in my training to respond.

24 jesspond { 12.22.09 at 3:44 pm }

I do not read a blog if I won’t comment. I don’t go to a L&F post unless I can commit to supporting that person.

Too many people are hurt by soaring statcounters and no support.

25 lynn @ human, being { 12.22.09 at 3:45 pm }

When I first got on Facebook, a guy I barely knew in high school (but had friended) started posting suicidal status updates … but had no info on his profile about how to reach him other than FB. A flurry of comments on his status updates (which he did not reply to) caused about 7 of us to band together to find out where he was, and we called the police. We never knew what happened next because he never posted on FB again.

Because I often post about my journey with bipolar disorder, I notice that I don’t get many comments on those posts. Bystander effect or just too heavy? I do get emails, though, but not from people who want to help me. Rather, they’re from people who see me being “out” about depression and ask for my help with their own.

If I see a post in which someone is seeking help, I usually email because to me, a comment is more like the off-hand comment “let me know if I can help”–which never means much.

26 Angie { 12.22.09 at 4:01 pm }

Kind of wish I could erase my earlier comment now, because I misunderstood your questions, mainly because it seems like I read a lot of depressed blog posts, mainly because I read women trying to live with the loss of their children. Are they a cry for help? Well, sort of. My blog is a cry for connection. As Mrs. Spit said, sometimes I just worry about whether someone could use some more therapy, or I notice that the grief has edged into full-blown depression, which can be different, but also don’t always know how to help. Are they suicidal? No. Are they in need of more help than comments on a blog? Yes. I think for me I recognize that what we are going through is something TO be sad about, and it is hard to say that a certain sadness is in more appropriate quantities than another. But I have to admit, I have little patience for people doing these types of stunts for attention and reaction. I felt like my teen years were spent as the person calling crisis intervention for friends, as I seemed to be the only non-suicidal goth girl in my circle of friends. I agree with whoever said, “Why not call 911 instead of tweeting for someone else to dial for you if you want help?” Threatening suicide for attention is abusive in my mind. So, I guess in that scenario am not sure I would dial the phone.

27 caitsmom { 12.22.09 at 4:06 pm }

I comment when I read cries of distress. Though, I don’t think I’d know if I was a party to the bystander effect. Seems it would be important for one to know how to recognize it.

28 Jamie { 12.22.09 at 4:08 pm }

Depending on the post itself, I do have thoughts on whether I should post or not given my current situation and if I will only make their situation worse. I don’t want to come off all, “If it happened to me it will happen to you! Just relax!” But if the person sounded like they were really in a bad place and not just grieving a loss, I would definitely leave a comment of support and offer to talk more. I’m not sure about Twittering – I really don’t know much about it. If it were someone I interacting with frequently and felt I knew pretty well, I would call 911 if asked. That is the thing about the internet – even though I haven’t met them in person, there are a lot of people I feel like I really ~know~.

I watched a special on the evening news where they set-up people in public situations. In one they were hazing college freshmen on a public lawn to see if anyone would try to intercede. In another, a server in a restaurant was refusing to serve a customer because they were black. Both situations made me uncomfortable because I would like to think I would stand up for the person, but it truly made me wonder if I would.

29 Cathy { 12.22.09 at 4:13 pm }

I think it is MORE important to respond to a person who is upset/depressed BEFORE they get to the point of thoughts of self-harm. Show them you care before it gets that severe. Which means not being a bystander up until that point, but rather acting and supporting when the loss happens, when the bad news rolls in, when they post not saying “I want to die”, but rather “I’m having a really bad day”.

I had a friend in high school, very depressed and cutting herself. She called me one night and said “I need someone to be here, I’m afraid tonight”, and I was there in minutes.

I had a friend in college IM me and a couple other people that he was going to jump out his 7th floor window. We all hauled ass over to his dorm, in the middle of the night, in our pajamas, dragging every RA we could find along the way. He was sitting, with his window open, sure, but saying “what took you so long?” and I wanted to smack him and push him out the window myself. You don’t DO THAT to people. You don’t say you’re going to kill yourself to see if people care, to see how many people respond and how long it takes. If he had wanted me, all he would have had to do was say “I don’t want to be alone tonight” and I would have gone to hang out with him.

And the same holds true in blogging. I only read when I can support – and I WILL support the “bad days/bad news” a lot more willingly than I would call 911 for someone who tweeted that they were about to hurt themself. Friendship – real or virtual – is not a test of how far you will go to help someone, and that’s how it feels to me when I hear of people saying to call 911. But, I do acknowledge that may be largely due to the experiences I have had with depression and calls for help.

30 a { 12.22.09 at 4:40 pm }

First, as a skeptic who is intolerant of attention-seeking behavior, I second Mina’s question of why the Tweeter didn’t just call for help on her own. I think this is probably a major part of why I stay away from Twitter. And remember the woman who had to answer to police regarding a tweet about the penalties for killing her children (or something to that effect – can’t remember the exact details) not long ago? That woman got help that she didn’t actually need. So, I guess that I refuse to be a Twitter bystander, neatly solving that problem for myself.

As far as commenting goes, I am not afraid of commenting, but I frequently opt not to comment based on a. my mood at the time, b. whether I can relate to the subject matter, and c. whether I can think of something useful to say. I don’t relate much to people who are seriously or clinically depressed…I’ve never been that far into a depression. It’s not that I don’t have sympathy for them, but it’s hard to find the right thing to say without coming across as clueless or patronising. There are also so many “what not to say to me” blog posts out there, that I might be better off combining words in random arrangements, so as not to offend. I can’t go by what I would want someone else to say to me, because I generally just want people to leave me alone rather than expressing insincere platitudes. Whine, whine, commenting is hard…

That being said, I am more likely to comment where there are few commenters. I guess it’s not the percentage that strikes me as much as the plain numbers.

31 Terry Elisabeth { 12.22.09 at 8:18 pm }

I have never seen posts with “suicide in mind” I think. I think I would react with a comment. But what can I do ? Most blogs I read (99%) are people I know nothing about. I had a training on preventing suicide in teens but it never covered suicide online…and I don’t know where people are from so I don’t know what number to give them.
Concerning the state of panic over a friend that calls in crisis and then gives no news, I stopped the friendship after having called, waited by the phone, leaving my front door unlocked so she could come in (in Montreal !), etc. Every time she would have spent her time with her boyfriend sniffing cocaine, going out, etc. I was so panicked and I had to take care of myself at the time (major depression) so, I had to cut her from my life. There is just so much you can do for someone.

32 Paz { 12.22.09 at 8:33 pm }

Last summer, we heard a scream that I will never forget, a women was in the alley behind our building and she was being attacked. We grabbed the cell and called 911 and they had already been called by others. People do the right thing. Often.

About that woman twittering for help. I suspect it was part habit – she was a twitterer – and partly an indirect call for help. It is probably very scary to call 911. You know they’ll answer and then you need to speak up. People in desperate straits aren’t always up to that. So twittering is easier because maybe 911 will be called or maybe not – and I imagine she was just as fearful of either scenario.

As to leaving comments, I comment when I am moved to do so. It may even be the very first time I have visited a blog. But, I like for a person experiencing a loss to have a gazillion messages of support, so I’ll post even when many, many have already.

33 B { 12.22.09 at 9:31 pm }

I saw a blog where a young person put photos of where they had slashed and burned. The first time they described self-harm I responded with ” I get it but it’s not OK” type of comment.

I found it difficult to offer ongoing support because the person was very clinical about it. It’s hard to receive the compassion of others when you have non for yourself. It wasn’t critical but it was life destroying in the same way anorexia is. A very controlled slow kind of suicide.

I liked that person and was sad about their pain but I kind of got why they did what they did. And also I am not a psychologist and don’t know where these things lead or the best ways to help someone in that kind of cycle. I did continue to leave “I see you” kind of comments for a while.

I think the blog did contain some kind of cry for help, but I wasn’t sure how to offer it.

She was a great writer. I told her that.

34 tbonegrl { 12.22.09 at 10:13 pm }

I would. But then again I tried to get out in the middle of traffic to help a stranded car. I’ve also stopped to perform CPR at accident scenes. My husband is horrified and I am equally horrified that he reacts so differently from me. He says I need to think of myself first, but somehow it is ingrained in me to act then question.

35 Ruben Major { 12.22.09 at 11:25 pm }

Being safe on a scene is critical. As a Paramedic, I have seen people injured on scene and put themselves in unnecessary danger by not paying attention to what is going on around them. As an example, we were going to a car accident scene and on the way there, someone else was not paying attention and slammed into the back of a semi-truck. Everyone in the car was killed. So you have to look out for yourself and be cognizant of your surroundings at all times. Just a thought…

36 Baby Smiling In Back Seat { 12.23.09 at 6:27 am }

Along these lines, I had a Thoughtful Thursday a couple of months ago about lurkers. The comments provide a variety of answers as to why people comment sometimes and not others. There was definitely a theme of not wanting to be redundant for posts with many prior comments.

Personally I’d say that there are diminishing returns. Going from 0 to 1 comments is a big deal, but 24 to 25 isn’t usually that different (though I’ve certainly received comments late in a chain that were still very helpful or insightful). Similarly, going from 24 to 25 calls to 911 does nothing, but going from 0 to 1 calls to 911 is the difference between life and death. As commenters we know how many people have come before, but as callers we don’t know whether we’re #1 or #25.

37 Palemother { 12.23.09 at 11:35 am }

When I first read this post, I overlooked the emphasis on situations that imply immediate physical threat. Maybe because, as you point out, we don’t often have enough information that would allow us to intervene in a physical, IRL way.

Still, I think The Bystander Effect is really interesting to consider as it applies to commenting and blogging.

Since my commenting time is often limited, I tend to reserve it for the blogs where I think it will give the biggest bang for the buck … which is most often on blogs with less than 20 or so comments per post (but it’s not strictly about those numbers — not at all). I also comment most regularly where I already have an established connection/conversation with the author — for the sake of tending to that relationship and encouraging good bloggers … And I also comment where there is something in that person’s writing or their experience that moves me to interact/share info/offer support on the spot.

Mega popular bloggers with many commenters … have a sort of celebrity status that has a dampening effect on commenting. I often think, rightly or wrongly, that

a) What I might have to contribute will be redundant or lost in the crowd — it seems harder to add value for my effort

b) the author already has an abundance of validation and support, so abstaining seems less consequential (that’s huge)

c) It starts to feel like writing fan mail … with so many voices/comments clamoring for the attention of the author, what is the point of reaching out? Why am I reaching out?

So there is a kind of value calculation to most commenting for me. I am like that in real life, too. I don’t speak just for the sake of hearing my own voice. And I don’t have to say everything that I think out loud. (That’s what my own blog is for lately LOL).

What we owe bloggers that we read in terms of support is a ver complicated, very interesting question. And whether I give it on any given day, and to whom I give it to … that’s a brand new calculation every single time, with variables almost too numerous to list.

The longer I blog and comment, the more the comment question boils down to … which is the bigger regret? The things you say or the things you don’t say? I’ve been burned both ways.

38 Eileen { 12.23.09 at 12:33 pm }

Excellent post Mel. I had a situation where a former student of mine posted something very cryptic as their Facebook status message. She had a history of suicide attempts when she was a student at my high school. I did not have access to her phone number or address. I spent about an hour going through all my past rosters looking for friends of hers who I could call to get her information. I was distraught. When I finally got a hold of her father I asked if could speak with her and he said “She is sleeping right now. Can I take a message?” Of course I was then torn between panicking the father, and worrying that she was harming herself in her room and no one knew. So I finally told the father that it was urgent that I spoke with her right then and he reluctantly went up to her room to retrieve her. She was thankfully alive, bu after talking on the phone to me admitted that she had a bottle of pills sitting on her bedside table that she was going to take. I will always wonder what would have happened if I didn’t care enough to spend the hour it took me to track her down. Would I have spent the rest of my life knowing that I could have been the one person to keep her alive? I never ignore cries for help like that. Otherwise you are doomed to a life of “What Ifs?”

39 Manapan { 12.23.09 at 1:14 pm }

I would try to say something, both because I’ve been there, and because I’m from a small town that held the record for the highest per capita teen suicide rate in the country. Suicide prevention has always been a part of life here, though I do worry that I’m not doing or saying the right thing. How far I would go, however, is dependent on a few factors that really do kind of boil down to the crowd effects in action.

Am I a regular reader? If I am, I’m more likely to know something about the person’s typical status. If I’m not, is this a large, commonly-frequented blog? If so, others know much more about this person than I do and can offer better comments. So in that case, a general “Thinking of you, hoping you can climb out of this dark hole soon, and please remember that depression is a self-limiting illness and it does end, so please don’t do anything rash because I guarantee that there are people who love you, and here’s the hotline number.” Just the same thing I would tell anybody, really.

If it’s a smaller blog or one I read often, I’d be much more likely to describe what I went through, what specific steps I took to come through it, try to make a personal connection, and offer up my contact info for support.

40 Bea { 12.23.09 at 6:29 pm }

I know I am less moved to comment when there are lots of comments. I have had a little conversation with myself a couple of times, and I usually make it a policy to comment anyway – but I have to have the conversation with myself first, whereas if there’s no or few comments, I don’t. Mostly, though, I base my response/likelihood of response not on number of comments, but on how well I know the blogger (unwritten social contract). I tend not to read much from people I don’t know these days, but there are always links to follow (eg from LFCA) so it does happen, albeit I am usually badly out of date by then (which also affects the likelihood of my commenting).

I have to say, though, I have never come across a real danger/crisis blog/tweet/etc that I know of. I can only assume the same rules apply, but I have previously heard of the bystander effect and I hope that knowledge would prompt me to take action even if there were 400 other comments.


41 monica lemoine { 12.24.09 at 5:52 am }

Interesting post as usual, Mel. Honestly, I haven’t encountered (or don’t recall, at least) coming across a blog post as extreme as the 911-example you point out . I’ve gotten some direct e-mails from super-depressed people who read my blog and have left me a bit worried, and I’ve written back to them and said (I hope) the right things. I’ve also posted some super depressed posts myself, and have gotten back loads of lovin’ kindness from readers, which has gotten me thru some hard times.

My sense is that people in the TTC/KuKd blog world are oftentimes seeking help of some sort simply by posting a blog. Not emergency do-or-die help, but at least some kind of affirmation, some support, some virtual love. And yeah, I think that leaving comments help with that. On the other hand, I’m hesitant about this idea of readership responsibility to leave comments for any reason at all. There are lots of blogs that I dip into from time to time – or even follow regularly -without leaving comments. I simply haven’t the time/energy/thought-power to comment on every single thing I read, or even most things I read. Also, with increasing overload of information on blogs and elsewhere on the web, it gets harder and harder to sort out what to take seriously. In the case you describe, I might react differently – but then again I might frankly wonder why this gal is wasting her time on Twitter instead of talking to some real mental health counselors for help. I think there are limits in the blog-o-sphere to the kinds of human relationships it can create – and unless I really, really, really love person’s twitter-feed or blog and follow it regularly (and have for some time), I’m not sure if I would take a tweeted call for help seriously.

Good food for thought, though – and something to keep in mind as I continue perusing this vast, wiley web-o-land!

42 Orodemniades { 12.24.09 at 9:16 pm }

I once saved a woman’s life after she decided to commit suicide with pills and alcohol. She was someone I’d met in a depression support chat room, and some months later, in real life, and some months after that I called the state police after she told people, live in chat, what she’d done. She was Canadian and was traveling down south, so all I had was her name and town she was in.

The police found her and got her to the hospital and she returned to Canada.

But, she was a person actively trying to commit suicide. That wasn’t her first attempt, but it was her next to last, for the next time she tried it, she did die.

So, yeah, I’d rather take the flak for “wasting time” or being embarrassed than have someone I know die because I did nothing.

43 Orodemniades { 12.24.09 at 9:17 pm }

I need to add that in no way do I feel responsobility for her death, nor the deaths of other friends in the chat-o-sphere. Those were their choices, not mine.

44 chrissy { 12.26.09 at 1:00 pm }

wow! what an interesting concept, I often think that of your blog, I will lurk but know you have a lot of comments, so I think oh well what does mine matter or what will I say that someone hasnt already, or i will read the other comments to make sure I dont say the same thing, so didnt do it this time, just commenting, now off to read more about the bystander effect, human behavior fascinates me!

45 Battynurse { 12.27.09 at 2:54 pm }

I have to say that if I came across a blog post where the person seemed depressed and distressed, asking for help, most likely I would leave some sort of comment or something reaching out to them. The exception maybe would be if there were already like 400 comments like you mentioned and then I would tend to think that my comment wouldn’t be read. For the most part though yes, I would comment. I know what it’s like to be that depressed. I also know very much what it’s like to be that depressed and to feel like you have no one to talk to and to desperately need someone to just talk to you and be there. I once received a phone call at a time that possibly could have been life saving in that I don’t know what would have happened later that night or the next day if that person hadn’t called. When I see others struggling with depression I want very much to help them with it.

46 Megan { 01.07.10 at 9:50 pm }

Weird. This week’s Law & Order: SVU addressed the topic of the bystander effect, and it made me recall this post. You’re so ahead of the curve, Mel.

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