On the night of August 12, 2012, over the course of six hours, a 16 year- old high school girl who was intoxicated to the point of unconsciousness was sexually assaulted repeatedly by two local high school football players, ages 16 and 17. The events occurred in front of peers and were documented by her assailants and dozens of onlookers through hundreds of live tweets, texts, photos, and videos. These were then sent to more friends and posted to several social media sites. There was extensive media coverage due to the role social media played. Much of the media coverage blamed the victim, from community members who were angered that their local football team was cast in a negative light, to news networks who focused on how the assailants’ damaged reputations would affect their once-bright futures. There were allegations that school and local authorities tried to cover up the incident to protect the high school football program and the accused athletes.
On March 17, 2013, the two assailants were tried as juveniles and convicted of rape and dissemination of child pornography. They received the minimum sentences of 1-2 years in juvenile detention. Whether or not they will have to register as sex offenders will depend upon their behavior there. Since the verdict, the victim continues to be attacked and harassed on social media – for drinking excessively, for wanting to date one of her assailants, for ruining the boys’ lives by charging them with rape.
One concept that comes to mind when trying to understand these events is bystander effect – the tendency of bystanders to be less likely to help in an emergency if there are other bystanders present. The idea is that people assume someone else will jump in to help so they don’t take action themselves, or they assume that if no one is helping there is no real problem. The other concept is mob mentality – when people become a part of a large group they can become de-individualized and go along with the crowd even when the crowd’s values are inconsistent with their own. It’s important to recognize that these concepts are doubly relevant in this case: when the crimes were committed at the parties, and then again when they were made public on social media. Psychologists suggest that people who are aware of these concepts may be less vulnerable to them and be more likely to speak up when they witness a crime.
Bystander effect and mob mentality may become more relevant when we consider the age of those involved. Brain development continues into the mid-twenties. Recent studies show that in adolescence there is an abundance of synaptic growth in the prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for weighing outcomes, forming judgments, and controlling impulses and emotions. A surge of growth doesn’t necessarily translate into highly efficient brain usage, since the brain needs to prune away neural connections that aren’t needed and strengthen the ones that remain. One area of a teen’s brain that develops early on is the nucleus accumbens, the part of the brain that seeks pleasure and reward. When the pleasure-seeking center is more developed than the center controlling impulses and weighing outcomes, at best we get behavior that makes parents roll their eyes. At worst, we get the events that happened in Steubenville.
Of course, there were other factors that deserve attention in this case. The behaviors of everyone involved cannot be passed off as part and parcel of normal adolescent development. Other factors include the normalization of violence against women, the role of substances, victim blaming, the protection of athletes and athletic programs. These things must be explored. The more we talk about it – in our families, in our schools, in the media – the more hope we have of changing the outcome next time. And hopefully, prevent it from happening at all.