By Michael Rees (Senior at Hammond High School)
In 2013, almost a quarter of high school students in the U.S. reported that they had been in a physical fight in the past year (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2014). Don’t believe me? Just look at the tweets and posts of the other students who did not help, but recorded these fights instead. I see this every day; smartphones used to post and view teen fights. Thinking about this phenomenon led me to a number of questions: Why would these teens do nothing to stop this fighting or to get away from it? Better yet, why would they run toward the fight, recording it and potentially endangering themselves?
With social media today being omnipresent and seemingly inescapable, teens want to find a way to be noticed amidst the millions of posts and videos each day. What better way to do so than presenting a fight to a society that pays millions of dollars to watch boxing and wrestling matches all the time? With the rise of smartphones and social media, the effects of fights may be more widespread and more powerful than in the past. Fighting behavior may be reinforced through the recording and posting of fights, for both the fighters and the recording spectators.
Today, fighting, including boxing and wrestling matches, has gained huge popularity, making its way into the media watched by both teens and adults. For answers about this phenomenon, I contacted Dr. Dewey Cornell, Director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project and Professor at the University of Virginia. According to him, some teens want to be admired and respected for their fighting skills, and so having a video of themselves winning a fight publically available can be very strong reinforcement. They may fail to realize the danger in these actions.
I also spoke to Dr. Amanda Nickerson, Professor and Director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University of Buffalo. She told me that teens’ planning and decision-making skills are not fully developed, which may lead them to fail to recognize fights as dangerous. Teens may view fighting as an effective way to resolve conflicts or may behave aggressively to try to achieve a goal or to defend against a real or perceived threat. Also, “depending on the norms of peers it may be seen as ‘cool’ to get in fights as well,” she said.
Now, why is it that teens watching the fights do not try to help? One reason could be that many of them see it as entertainment and not as a problem at all. According to Dr. Cornell, even if they do see fighting as a problem, they may be too intimidated, fear being labeled as a snitch, or may lack faith in their local authority figures to adequately end the fighting.
According to Dr. Nickerson, the most common reaction when youth witness bullying or other forms of aggression is to not intervene – “Some may actually reinforce it, partly for entertainment value.” Latané and Darley’s (1968) classic research on the bystander effect and intervention shows that people have to go through a fairly involved process to intervene in emergency situations, including:
- noticing what is happening,
- interpreting it as an emergency (which may depend on attitudes toward aggression, etc.),
- taking responsibility to do something (which may differ depending on situation, cost-benefits, number of other people around and their reactions),
- knowing what to do, and, finally
- taking action to stop it.
The bystander effect can be very powerful; the presence of other people and their actions guide our behavior. Dr. Nickerson also suggests that some may derive additional reinforcement themselves, such as attention, laughter, and praise, for being the one to record and share the fight.
Recent social media posts make this explanation seem likely. On December 26, 2014, employees and shoppers alike at a mall in Pittsburgh hid in stores as a massive fight erupted between almost 1,000 teens. In the footage, you can see a mob of teens flocking towards the fights with their phones in the air. The zombie-like behavior of the teens supports the idea that they feel no sense of danger regarding the fights and that they view the fights as a form of entertainment. Quoting Dr. Cornell, “most times what we see in sports, movies, and cartoons is violence that does not cause serious or permanent injury, so that the prospect of a terrible outcome seems remote.”
The reinforcement that spectators receive may outweigh their perception of danger, as this this video from Rowlett, TX demonstrates. These teens appear not to care about the possibility of injury as one girl assaults another while she has a 3-year old toddler in her lap. If that wasn’t enough, later on in the video (at about the 1:45 mark) one of the spectators starts to dance next to the two girls fighting. The three bystanders do not appear to make any effort to stop the fight. Teens today can even get so caught up in the social media phenomenon that they create fight clubs, such as one that sprung up in St. Louis.
Now, you might be thinking “How can we stop this fight culture?” Truthfully, we have yet to find a way to stop this behavior completely, and it is unlikely that there is one. However, school-based programs, particularly those developed and implemented by researchers, have shown effectiveness in reducing school fighting (Wilson & Lipsey, 2007). This suggests that there are certain steps that can reduce violence among adolescents.
One of the first steps to reducing fights could be discouraging teens from recording the fights through bystander intervention training. Recording these fights only adds to the growing collection of violent videos online, the availability of which could make that violence seem normal. Dr. Nickerson points out that almost all schools and many community organizations have codes of conduct prohibiting fighting. Many bullying prevention and other prevention approaches emphasize the role of the bystander and how he or she can recognize problems and intervene directly if it is safe to do so or indirectly (reporting the incident, supporting the target, etc.). This bystander intervention training component is often part of larger initiatives to create a positive culture or climate where there is respect for all.
Another method of reducing adolescent fighting could be to recognize peer conflict before it reaches the point of a physical attack. However, these rising conflicts can be very challenging to discover and defuse. A proven method to reduce school fighting is to implement school-based programs aimed at preventing aggressive behavior. A number of evidence-based resources are available at www.stopbullying.gov, the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention, and the Youth Violence Project. #STRYVE
Michael Rees is a senior attending Hammond High School. He completed an internship with the APA Children, Youth and Families Office in the Public Interest Directorate #STRYVE . He is primarily interested in how people make decisions and the factors that contribute to those decisions.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2014). 1991-2013 High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data. Available at http://nccd.cdc.gov/youthonline/
Darley, J.M. & Latane, B. (1968).Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8(4), 377-383. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0025589.
Wilson, S. J. & Lipsey, M. W. (2007). School-based violence prevention programs for reducing disruptive and aggressive behavior: update of a meta-analysis. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, (33)2, S130-S143. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2007.04.011.
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Co-incidentally I am a member of the Hammond High community.
I was impressed when I saw a fight at Hammond High several years ago, not did the staff respond quickly, but a fellow student helped separate the combatants.