Research about the impact of technology in empathy development in children this isn’t clear. A Dutch study of 10-14 year olds found that their use of social media was not actually damaging their empathy, but improving it. The study suggests that social media may be helpful for kids in this age group by observing interactions and feedback from peers, and allowing them to practice skills related to social competence.
When the class of 2018 started school, they were coming into classrooms that already had SmartBoards, laptops, and smartphones. They came of age online, and studies are showing that this is changing the way that these students behave. Sarah Conrath and a team at University of Michigan reviewed data samples from 94 studies of undergraduate students between 1988 and 2011. The studies showed that during that time period, there was a 40% decline in empathy among college students. This aligns with the fact that Howard Gardner and Katie Davis call current college students members of the “app generation”, and this affects the way that they have conversations and build relationships. Technology and apps are designed to respond quickly, and they respond to actions in a predictable way. People, on the other hand, don’t always respond predictably or quickly, especially in person, so it can be easier to take those interactions online.
On the flip side, some of the positive accepted behaviours online are not as accepted in person. The anonymity of some online spaces can make it easier for people to present a more true version of themselves than they might in the real world, or self-disclose information about challenges or difficult situations. This reflecting in public can be a powerful tool to get support from others, and allows people to build an understanding of the experience of others. But if we’re all reflecting in public more, we’re also spending less time reflecting alone.
We typically think that empathy is built when we spend time with other people, but time alone for reflection is also critical to building empathy, and we’re doing less of that than ever before. “We turn time alone into a problem that needs to be solved by technology,” says Sherry Turkle, and we’re finding lots of solutions to this “problem”. In fact, a University of Virginia study found that college students have a hard time thinking in enjoyable ways when left alone in an empty room with no cell phone. In fact, they found that students would rather voluntarily give themselves a light electric shock than just sit and think. The time to reflect alone helps us build skills like concentration and imagination, which are skills that help us be fully present in a conversation.
So if the bad news is that the impact of technology on empathy is happening early, the good news is that it isn’t universally bad, and it doesn’t take much to counteract the negative effects. A 2014 UCLA study of 11-13 year olds found that after just 5 days at an outdoor camp with no devices, the campers were able to read facial expressions and emotions significantly better. This may have been a study of kids, but there are device-free spaces and retreats popping up for adults as well. As a college junior pointed out, the connections that we have through our devices aren’t inherently bad. “Our texts are fine, it’s what texting does to our conversations when we are together that’s the problem.”
These are a few things that anyone can try!
- Reclaim your solitude. Make time to be device free, sit by yourself and just think.
- Make a practice of unitasking. Practice being present in one task or conversation, even if that conversation is online.
- Be deliberate about when and where you disconnect and recharge, and take your phone off the table when you’re having a conversation with someone.
- Reclaim face to face conversations. Arrange a meeting, meal, or coffee instead of sending a text.