‘Bullying Experiment’ video: What’s wrong with this picture?

You may have seen “The Bullying Experiment” video that has gone viral (as of this writing, 3.1 million views on YouTube). Two actors stage a bullying incident (the bigger one threatening and pushing around the other) a bunch of times in various locations on a university campus. The “experiment” is apparently about seeing whether unsuspecting observers step in and try to stop the “bullying,” and to the actors’ apparent surprise, “most of the onlookers simply ignore or walk away. They just seem to not want to get involved,” writes Justin Patchin of the Cyberbullying Research Center. “The actors are critical of this and actually confront several of them afterwards to try to get an explanation.”

There’s nothing new about public humiliation with a hidden camera, except maybe that it can be global now, via YouTube. What’s a little different about this particular version is that it focuses on bystanders instead of the perpetrator – unfairly, I feel. The embedded self-righteousness is bad enough, but it’s based on four major problems:

  1. The video insinuates that this experiment was representative of “America” – the lead actor’s conclusion was “Why bullying occurs in America – because people like that [the people he put on YouTube with no warning or permission] don’t stop it when they see it happening right in front of their eyes.”
  2. The underlying assumption is that the best way to fix a social problem is to shame people into changing.
  3. What’s missing from the picture – any awareness that bullying hurts bystanders too (see this about the work of Prof. Ian Rivers), and not all have the physical or emotional makeup to intervene in situations like the one staged in this video.
  4. What social norms research shows: that making people aware of positive norms changes behavior better than making them aware of hopeless or hurtful situations.

In the comments below it, blended in with criticism of “America” as a whole, many people seem to “applaud the efforts of these two for apparently exposing a serious problem: people just don’t care,” writes Patchin, author and criminology professor at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Further critical thinking

Patchin shares other problems he has with the video in his blog, including: its unrealistic depiction of bullying (can responses to an unrealistic depiction be representative of reality?); it’s too simplistic (the video fails to acknowledge that what leads people to intervene is complicated, as well as individual and situational); though it seems to be testing for “the bystander effect,” it doesn’t recreate the conditions of the 1964 incident it’s based on (see Patchin’s mention of this).

“I don’t believe that the majority of people failed to act because they were apathetic or uncaring,” Patchin writes. “They were just as likely legitimately afraid for their own safety. Furthermore, we don’t know how many of the people who were leaving the area would have contacted the authorities or taken some other action to resolve the situation once they were in a safe place.”

Potential unintended consequences

So maybe the video was just intended to elicit judgment, shame and lots of views. If so, it was successful from the producers’ perspective, but it can also be hurtful. Since we’re talking about shame, it’s a shame the producers of videos designed to go viral don’t consider the potential unintended consequences. Here are some important ones Patchin cites:

  • 3 million+ views could encourage others “to pursue similar ‘experiments’ with the hope that their video will go viral
  • The possibility of a witness intervening in a violent way – even has a weapon – and hurting the people conducting the “experiment”
  • The possibility of someone actually bullying someone and using “it was only an experiment” as an excuse
  • The possibility that a bullying target’s takeaway from the video would be that “no one out there really cares or is willing to help.” It’s a reasonable (uncritical) takeaway, since it’s the conclusion of the video’s creators. Patchin writes that he worries about a teen who’s “bullied in a more hidden or indirect way, and struggles to explain his or her experiences to a parent or teacher. If a person who directly observes bullying right in front of them doesn’t think it deserves a response, what hope does the teen who suffers in silence have?

Media-based “social experiments” like this illustrate that the critical thinking skills of media literacy and perspective-taking skills of social literacy are needed more than ever. You can see from Professor Patchin’s list of unintended consequences that they’re also protective against misinformation and – for example, with this video – any feelings of cynicism or hopelessness it might elicit. Media and social literacy are baseline online (and offline) safety. The more viral a video goes, the more likely kids will see it. There is no “parental control tool” that can block all problematic videos, so let’s get on with helping them develop the literacies of social media.

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