HARRINGTON: Stuck in the friend zone

The University’s new online bystander intervention training program is not well suited for new first-year students

Last Thursday, President Teresa Sullivan sent students an email requesting they complete the “Hoos Making a Safer Community at the University of Virginia” online training program. Aside from the obvious drawback of a program whose viewing is altogether optional, the effectiveness of this program is limited by the phrasing it uses. Namely, it teaches intervention techniques to use in the context that the student in trouble is a “friend.” While this word choice was likely one of convenience, it is problematic for new first-year students.

The program usefully outlines and links to the network of University safety resources and policies, a review of which could be beneficial even for returning students. It then emphasizes the importance of the individual student in the system’s effectiveness by teaching strategies to recognize signs of distress in peers. It instructs students how to prevent, intervene or respond in situations such as a peer’s erratic behavior, serious depression, risk of suicide, self-harm, risk of violent behavior and relationship violence. The advice presented is basic yet worthwhile: that one should approach the person and refer them to the appropriate University resources.

While the program claims “safety is everyone’s responsibility,” its wording on intervention techniques gives the impression that only the close friends of a student in distress are personally accountable to confront him. For a new first-year student in distress who has not yet developed close friendships, this perspective absolves his peers of an obligation to confront him. This social pressure not to intervene exemplifies the bystander effect: the more unconcerned peers surrounding the person in distress, the less likely any one of them will choose to intervene.

This bystander effect is propagated by two phenomena: “diffusion of responsibility” and “pluralistic ignorance.” New peers do not strongly feel a personal responsibility to say something because they assume someone else is closer to the student in distress and in a better position to effectively intervene. The responsibility for intervention they do feel by knowing the student on a cursory basis is reduced because they recognize that many others also know the student on this level and would be equally capable of intervening. Pluralistic ignorance reinforces this inaction: if someone notices that no peers are saying something to the student, they will likely trust that mode of action and stay quiet, too. For a first-year student trying to be tolerant of and polite to others, these factors can lead to a lack of action from all parties.

I experienced this bystander effect last fall, when my roommate who suffered from an eating disorder relapsed. I wanted to seem tolerant of her eccentricities, and felt it would be impolite to comment on her distress or odd eating habits. As I had just met her, I could convince myself that her behavior was just another part of her offbeat personality. Of course, the fact that she was removed from her prior support system and had not formed a new one led to other peers responding similarly. I did not feel obligated to question her behavior, and others’ similar avoidance of intervention made me secure in my inaction. She did not discuss her distress until the problem exacerbated. She left five weeks after school started.

If a student is able to recognize their personal responsibility to say something to a new acquaintance in distress, the program’s advice may seem inapplicable. The use of the “friend” setting in mock intervention situations prompts recommended dialogue that is unrealistic for use by new acquaintances. The students in the videos immediately and directly respond to a friend’s odd behavior by saying, “Whoa… Alex, are you okay? You’re really freaking me out right now” and “Yo! What the heck’s wrong, man?” Less-than-friends would be uncomfortable approaching someone in this way, so examples of how to more softly address concern would have been useful for new first-year students.

Similarly, in the mock situation about relationship violence, two friends are able to casually begin a conversation where they express concern about a third friend’s aggressive boyfriend. A new first-year student might shy away from initiating a discussion like this that may come off as gossip, and would benefit from being taught a way to directly ask a friend if they, too, have also noticed the boyfriend exhibiting concerning behavior.

Hopefully, the Fall Orientation safety and security discussions (which Sullivan mentioned would complement this program for first-year students) will emphasize this importance of saying something, even if the student in distress is merely a new acquaintance. An honest discussion and referral to the appropriate University resources, although seemingly simplistic, could be the interaction that allows a peer who is not yet a “friend” to circumvent an unsafe situation and access the help he needs to have four fulfilling years at the University.

Elaine Harrington is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at e.harrington@cavalierdaily.com.

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