It’s more important than ever to teach empathy from the very beginning,
because our kids are going to need it.
Nearly every expert I spoke with while writing “Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology,” told me that if they could equip kids with one digital superpower, it would be empathy.
Empathy is the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes. It encompasses perspective taking, and it allows you to feel what another is feeling. Educational psychologist Michele Borba, author of an indispensable parent’s guide to raising kind kids called UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, explains that empathy is “the cornerstone for becoming a happy, well-adjusted, successful adult. It makes our children more likable, more employable, more resilient, better leaders, more conscience-driven, and increases their lifespans.”
Unfortunately, empathy is on the decline. Between 1979 and 2009, American college students’ scores on two measures of empathy dropped a whopping 40 percent, with the steepest decline occurring from 2000 onward. During the same time period, narcissism was shown to be on the rise.
I was curious to learn if empathy has continued to decline since 2009, the last year of this study, so I asked Borba. She told me that it has “continued to free-fall and seems to be falling faster in hyper-competitive countries and ones that are more technologically plugged-in as well.”
The researchers who conducted the empathy-dip study, Sara Konrath and Edward O’Brien from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, also believe technology may contribute to empathy’s decline. According to O’Brien, “The ease of having ‘friends’ online might make people more likely to just tune out when they don’t feel like responding to others’ problems, a behavior that could carry over offline.” The pair also noted that the generation of college students they studied grew up with video games, and a growing body of research is establishing that “exposure to violent media numbs people to the pain of others.”
Even so, Borba warned me to be careful about placing empathy’s plunge entirely on technology’s shoulders. “But, that said, technology is definitely playing a role because the gateway to empathy is emotional literacy.” Emotional literacy, she explained, is the ability to “read somebody’s face or body language and understand that he looks upset or he looks sad. Empathy is feeling with another person, and you can’t feel with another person unless you can read or understand that person’s emotions.”
Like ethical thinking, the capacity for empathy grows as the child grows. When an infant feels attachment to a parent or loving caregiver, the seeds of empathy are sown. Little by little, Borba explains, “as egocentricity fades, and social-centricity comes up, kids become more aware of others and are slowly able to cognitively step into another person’s shoes.” But children need experiences, nurturing, and deliberate attempts from adults to help these seeds grow, she says. “While children are hardwired for empathy, there are lots of things you can do to cultivate it. Intentionality, particularly in a plugged-in, trophy-driven world, is crucial.”
Like almost everything related to technology, a direct correlation hasn’t been drawn between empathy’s decline and technology. But you don’t have to be a rocket scientist with a big research budget to figure out that digital interaction has some serious deficits. Lack of eye contact, facial expression, human touch, and voice intonation are a few. Learning how to read and understand these human cues are empathy-building experiences. In the absence of such practice, it stands to reason that kids might end up with an empathy deficit.
Don’t believe me? Fair enough. Here’s a study to prove it.
In 2014, scientists from UCLA studied two groups of sixth graders from a Southern California public school. One group spent five days at a nature camp just outside of Los Angeles, which didn’t allow students to use digital devices. The other group of students used their digital devices as usual. After only five days at camp, the non-tech-using kids showed significant improvement in their abilities to read facial expressions and nonverbal cues, as compared to the other group of kids. Which means that those kids—the digital device–using ones—were less adept at reading human emotions.
According to the study’s lead author, Yalda Uhls, “If you’re not practicing face-to-face communication, you could be losing important social skills.”
A Cyber Civics Moment of Empathy
You can help your children grow empathy!
Here's one of the many Cyber Civics moments offered in my book. These at-home activities that families can do together to help kids build a healthy, happy, and positive relationship with technology. This one, called Engage in Random Acts of Online Kindness—seemed perfect for Valentine's Day. It can help your children practice their empathy skills. Enjoy!
Excerpted from “Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology,” all citations are in the book.