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Flash Mobs: The Good and The Bad

April 2, 2010

The phenomenon of flash mobs, usually a fun urban crowd experience, street art, performance art, has taken a decidedly nasty direction in some recent events in Philadelphia. Some flash mobs in Philly have involved property damage and some personal assaults.

A rowdy flash mob on South Street

Temple University psychologist Frank Farley, who studies youth behavior–including cyber-behavior, feels the change in the nature of flash mobs from essentially positive to negative as shown in the Philly case, is dangerous and a threat to the community, but that it is a youth fad with a short life.

“Some of the factors motivating it are thrill seeking, rule breaking and simply the fun of an unpredictable large group social experience,” says Farley. “The danger lies in that very unpredictability, when large numbers of people congregate with no clear agenda, and bad behavior or extreme behavior is initiated by some, and ‘social facilitation’ and ’emotional contagion’ might help spread the bad behavior in threatening or criminal directions.”

A frozen flash mob at 30th Street Station

Farley believes many youth won’t participate if the flash mob seems likely to be destructive, with the potential for being caught up in criminal activity and police involvement, but that personality might be a significant factor, with the most thrill seeking youth–who low impulse control–possibly the most involved.

Farley believes that factors such as spring-time; warm weather; breaking out of a long winter; the fun of getting outdoors; doing some extreme social behavior; filling a night; meeting new people; getting covered on TV; and having been there and part of whatever happens, recounting it and regaling others about it later, all may encourage the behavior.

Farley urges parents and teachers to deal explicitly with the phenomenon, talking over the dangers with youth, suggesting positive forms of flash mobs as having just as much or more fun and less risk.


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