November 28, 2008

Computers, the Internet & Desensitization

by Althea Avice de Guzman

He smiles slightly, that person across the street from you. He is holding a sign that says: I am going to kill myself. There is a crowd watching him take the pills from his pockets. Now, there is a general murmuring as he puts the pills in his mouth. Still no one moves. Some scream for him to stop, others are trying to call his bluff by encouraging him. Most just watch.

His body topples to the ground and twelve hours later, the police finally come. But it's too late. Countless witnesses were unable to stop a young man from committing suicide.

Your first reaction: Outrage; maybe incredulity that no one was willing to stop him.

It did not exactly happen this way, but the death of Abraham Biggs, Jr. only differed in that instead of looking across the street, people were looking at a computer screen while he committed suicide live on webcam. And people responded to his action just the same.

In psychology, there is such a thing as the bystander effect, where people diffuse responsibility away from themselves and unto others when they are in groups. One would think that the more people there are, the greater the chance of him being saved, but it seems the contrary is true. However, I hesitate to give people even that degree of credit and this leads me to ask whether or not being online has desensitized us to such acts.

In addition to diffusing responsibility to others, there is also the lack of accountability from being behind a computer screen. What is the difference between the virtual world and that of the real one? For example, you suddenly have more courage to talk to a person online that you would not have in person. That way, you are not confronted with social pressures or expectations and also there is an aspect of detachment that comes with it. It is an alternate social reality. Repeating this situation over and over again may encourage one to prefer interaction through the internet, in other words, taking the easy way out.

Therefore, does overexposure to the internet foster the loss of empathy and thus desensitize us? To some extent, I must admit I gave up some of my humanity while trying to be more aware. After reading countless headlines about tragedy and disaster, suddenly, the shock of something so terrible happening wore off. Not only was I reading them online, I was seeing them too, on YouTube. And the worst part of being aware? I couldn't relate.

Also, admittedly, a bit of my morality has been compromised. While my conscience would hesitate to steal a CD from the store, online, I never had a problem using Napster in its existence. The existence of those file-sharing sites and their widely-accepted use by all my peers led me to believe that the virtual music store was not like the real store at all. Now the guilt from downloading a song has subsided, and who knows what else my conscience will allow me to do online but not in real life.

At the end of the day, as soon as you walk into my room and sign online, you are no longer a part of the real world. That computer screen protects you from the consequences of reality, and maybe even from the guilt of watching someone die right in front of your eyes.

(Photo collage by kuddlyteddybear2004 of Ashtabula, OH via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

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