Saturday, 15 November 2014

Choosing to film a drunk or drug-affected person instead of helping them: Why would someone do that?

In an Opinion Piece published in News Ltd papers during the week titled ‘Does Georgina’s drug death prove we have become a city of impassive bystanders?’, Louise Roberts commented on disturbing reports that instead of seeking help for the young woman who died last weekend after attending a dance festival, a number of people opted to video the incident instead:

"... we have a new playmate in town. The passive bystander, armed not with a conscience but a smartphone, filming all that real-time grief and watching Bartter's last gasps for life through a screen. By witness accounts, at least five of these "sick and twisted" male strangers were calculating and disconnected beyond comprehension and in position to perfectly capture those ­terrible moments. At what point, in the ­microsecond it takes to act on instinct, does someone reach for a phone instead of reaching for the hand of someone dying at their feet?"

She goes onto explain the phenomenon as follows:

"In the 1960s US psychologist Bibb Latane and a colleague coined the term "bystander apathy" for a number of east coast crimes chilling not only for their ­depravity but for the casual insouciance of neighbours and onlookers. One incident ­focused on the reported murder of a bar manager who was stalked and knifed while 38 people — obviously whoever counted these audience members was also a bystander — looked on as if watching a soap opera. Latane said it was the "diffusion of responsibility effect", a warped subconscious agreement between peers that someone else will help or already has helped."

This is not a new issue - in 2000 I wrote a piece on an incident that I was involved with after working at a major dance event and then deciding to go a nightclub with friends:

I was in the bathroom and washing my hands and in the corner of my eye noticed a young man hunched up in the corner, barely conscious, sliding into the urinal. I walked over and tried to wake him. When I touched his shoulder he came around and instantly told me that he was fine. He was sweating profusely, slurring his words and by this time his hand was in the urinal trough. The toilet area was quite hot and he obviously needed to get some air. I tried to get him up but that was proving quite difficult as he was slipping in and out of consciousness. Finally I got him to the point where he was relatively lucid and walked him to the washbasins. He washed his hands, his knees occasionally buckling beneath him. By the way, did I say that there were about 12-15 people in the toilet at this time? The guy was almost sitting in the trough, he was obviously in trouble and no-one – not one person – came forward to give me a hand and lift this guy up off the floor and away from the urinal and out of the bathroom!

On reflection, maybe I should have just asked someone to give me a hand – I'm sure if push came to shove someone would have helped if requested. However, what would have happened if I hadn’t been there? How long had he been in that state with no-one even asking him if he was okay?  At the time I wrote the piece I commented that I hoped we hadn't got to the stage where we stop caring about people who are in trouble. I get it that no-one wants to have their night ruined by other peoples' alcohol and other drug choices but I know that if I was in a bad place I'd want someone to stop and check and see if I was okay. Wouldn't you?
 
Here are three other quick examples of stories that I have been told in the last couple of months by either parents or young people around the same issue:
  • parents answered the door at their daughter's 15th birthday party to find three girls all expecting to enter the house. Behind them lying next to the driveway was their extremely intoxicated friend who had fallen out of the taxi they had just arrived in. When asked about their friend the girls told the parents that she had got too drunk at the 'pre-party' and had almost thrown up in the cab, had embarrassed them and they now wanted to have nothing to do with her ...
  • a 16 year-old young man attending a party found an unconscious drunk guy he went to school with propped-up, hidden behind a tree at the back of the house. He found a couple of his friends and was told that they had warned him to not get too drunk this time as they had had enough of looking after him week after week - their nights being ruined by his drunkenness. They would pick him up at the end of the night and make sure he got home safely but they were not willing to look after him until then ...
  • after being tipped off by neighbours, a mum hosting a 16th birthday party found an unconscious girl around the side of her house, positioned by the garbage bins. She was later told by her daughter that she had been put there by her friends who were concerned that her drunken state would mean that they wouldn't be admitted into the house ...
To ignore people in trouble who you don't know is of concern enough (sadly we all do it, walking past that person in the street who asks for help) but when you hear of young people who don't look after their friends it is devastating! A study conducted by Macquarie University a number of years ago found that teens had almost an unwritten 'law' about looking after drunk friends - they were more than willing to help someone the first time they got into trouble, the second time was pushing it - but keep doing it and there's a breaking point! To have their night out affected over and over again was regarded as just not fair - as a result, some were just not willing to help a friend in trouble.

But Roberts added another dimension - the filming of the incident. I have now been involved with a couple of cases when young women have been sexually assaulted when they were drunk, not been aware of what happened due to their intoxication and only found out about it later when they were sent a video of the incident. You have no idea how completely destroyed these girls (and that's what they were - 15 year-old 'babies' who just didn't have the capacity to cope with this type of situation) were and it is difficult to imagine how they will ever recover from their terrible ordeal. The sexual assault is disturbing enough - but the fact that there was someone holding the smartphone and filming the crime is beyond belief!

There is so much about social media that I don't understand - I am from a completely different generation and the idea of photographing a drunk friend, videoing a sexual assault or the like and then sharing this with others is beyond me. I must say that I get a lot of young people who say they have videoed their friend when they have been intoxicated to show back to them when they have sobered up in an effort to get them to change their behaviour - sounds great in principle but I'm not sure that 'shaming' people in this way is necessarily effective and could be devastating should the video get into the wrong hands ...

Capturing every moment on film, good, bad or in between, is just what we do today. When it comes to filming people in trouble maybe it is the 'diffusion of responsibility effect', as Roberts described, and these people really do believe that someone else will help or already has helped. I hope so - wouldn't it be terrible if it wasn't and in fact, it was just that we have become so desensitized to these type of events that we have simply stopped caring? Drunk or drug-affected people can be scary, even if you're an adult, particularly if alcohol and other drugs are not really part of your world. At the very least, there is always the fear that you could get hurt in some way - I get that and putting yourself into danger to help others is not advised but if you do nothing else, all it really takes is to take a few steps back from the person, pull out a mobile and call 000. 

One of the key messages we push to our young people at every opportunity is 'look after your friends'. For the most part teens grab this message with both hand and run with it - they are always looking for new strategies to help them look after others effectively. I hope we don't lose that - however, I think we also need to make clear to them that if a friend is repeatedly getting into trouble (e.g., regularly getting drunk or getting 'messy' on drugs) and they are finding this too difficult to deal with, there are things they can do rather than just simply 'dump them on the side of the road and forget them'! Not only do we need to develop and give them messages on how to safely pass them onto others but also ensure that they know who to pass them onto and when.

As for filming drunk or drug-affected people, you only have to look at many 15-16 year-olds' Facebook pages to see that this is common practice for some. YouTube also provides thousands of videos of young (and not so young) intoxicated people, many of whom look as though they could be in real trouble. Does it desensitize young people to the real risks associated with intoxication? I'm sure it does but it is not going to go away so we need to quickly try to work out how best to deal with the issue ...

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