Does Spending Time Online Destroy Empathy?


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There’s no doubt that, with the help of social media, some people boast and lie, spread rumors and behave like bullies online. Of course, the same thing could be said about students in a typical middle school cafeteria. People can behave poorly in any setting. For parents, the question is how to raise children who are a force for good — both online and off.

Empathy is a good place to start. Being able to imagine another person’s perspective makes it easier to get along with each other and offers lifelong advantages.

“The ability to empathize affects our kid’s future health, wealth, authentic happiness, relationship satisfaction and ability to bounce back from adversity,” writes Michele Borba in her book “Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World” (Touchstone, 2016). “Empathy is also a positive predictor of children’s reading and math scores, and critical-thinking skills; prepares kids for the global world; and gives them a job market boost,” she says.

Some people worry that online interactions can adversely affect empathy because people don’t see the consequences of what they say. Research, however, suggests this isn’t quite that simple. One study conducted by the University of North Florida found that, under some circumstances, social media may actually “facilitate empathy” because it offers a glimpse into perspectives other than our own.

Unlike sympathy, which often includes a dose of condescension or pity, empathy starts with sincere, nonjudgmental curiosity. It moves us to ask: “What’s your experience?” “How do you feel about this?” “Help me understand what things are like for you.”

Here are six ways families can engage with online communities that actively encourage positive social values.

Play. Common Sense Media has compiled a list of games that teach empathy with simulations that are suited to a variety of ages. Each game immerses children in a situation that stimulates thinking about how things might seem to some with different experiences. commonsense.org.

Create. Rock Your World encourages middle- and high-school students to identify, research and publicize issues that matter to them through lessons that lead students through the process of developing and sharing films, songs and written materials. creativevisions.org/rock-your-world.

Learn. Ashoka Changemaker Schools is a learning community through which parents can find a variety of resources, including a bulletin board with thoughtful articles and videos about how to nurture empathy at home and in school. startempathy.org.

Stand Up. Be Fearless Be Kind, a multifaceted project underwritten by Hasbro, offers a variety of projects and programs that encourage compassion, empathy and the courage to stand up for other people. befearlessbekind.hasbro.com.

Act. Doing Good Together is a national nonprofit dedicated to helping families form habits of kindness through book recommendations, flashcards and stories about big-hearted kids who have accomplished exceptional things in their communities. doinggoodtogether.org.

Compete. Xocial is an alternative social network that invites members to raise their XO score by taking actions that create better communities. Each challenge is assigned a certain number of points in the hope that members compete with each other to see who can do the most good. xocial.com.

These are just a few of many online resources that cultivate empathy. The best way to teach empathy, however, is modeling it at home. Be sure to spend a little no-tech time each day talking about what’s happening to your child and how he or she feels about it. Treat other people with respect. Help your children understand how they can stand up for or express what’s important to them without insulting or demeaning other people. If you criticize others, including your child, do it with compassion. And never miss an opportunity to appreciate the good things people do — both online and off. 

Carolyn Jabs is the author of “Cooperative Wisdom: Bringing People Together When Things Fall Apart,” a book that describes a way to address conflict in families, schools and communities. Visit cooperativewisdom.org for more information.

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