How the use of the Internet is causing us to lose Empathy

Written by Eli Baum

In the age of technology, when we have an almost unlimited access to online stimuli including millions of videos, articles, images, and connections through social networks, people of my generation are becoming less and less empathetic . A loss of face to face contact is truly the problem that our connective technology presents. Through a computer or phone screen there is little chance that you can actually feel, or understand, the pain of another person. While we may convince ourselves that we truly feel bad for someone or something, the ability to view so much information and see other peoples hardships, all from the sanctity of our own home, creates a subconscious safety bubble where we believe we are exempt from real problems. Additionally, the ubiquity of cell phones, especially smart phones, has allowed us to maintain contact with innumerable people around the world with the simple touch of a button to make a call or send a text or log into a social network and be technically connected, without any real people skills. With access to the internet we can simultaneously experience a harsh reality, while we develop a false sense of safety.

The ability to step into another persons shoes and see their perspective is lost by the indirect convenience of the technology age because we have become so concerned of our self image that we can’t see life through another point of view. For example, if a friend’s mom passes away it is far too easy to shoot them a text saying “Sorry for your loss,” to accommodate our own peace of mind. This way, we can feel like we are doing the right thing as a friend, without actually helping or feeling someones pain, therefore, this person is lacking empathy. We are so wrapped up in ourselves that we can not feel empathy for others.

A recent study done by a group of social psychologists from the University of Michigan led by Paul Anderson and Sara Konrath found that today American college students have scored the lowest on a standard empathy test than ever before. About 14,000 students volunteered for the study and it showed drastic changes since 1980. This study showed, that on a standard empathy test, scores dropped 34% in  “perspective taking” (the ability to imagine others’ points of view) and 48% on “empathic concern” (the tendency to feel and respond to others’ emotions). While there are multiple speculations as to this decline, it seems most plausible that this could be due to the widespread use of technology. With such easy connections to our peers through texting and social networks technology has drastically simplified staying in contact, without any emotional ties.

The thing that makes this changing human dynamic much more of a pressing matter is the degree to which it does not appear in mainstream news. There really are only a few people talking about this who are for the most part psychologists and people in education, where this is becoming a more noticeable issue and are trying to persuade people to step back from their devices and interact with the real world. Sara Konrath, an assistant social psychology professor at the University of Michigan, was the leader of the study on college students and empathy which found a sharp decline in empathy from years before. One of the larger names from this narrative is Dr. Gary Small, a professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral science at the University of Los Angeles. Small is an acclaimed author in the scientific field and has conducted multiple experiment concerning the decline in empathy and his greatest finding is that younger children are making less and less eye contact with someone talking to them. He attributes this to the decline in empathy due to the technology of “screens”.

At this point, the key people investigating the phenomena of diminishing empathy, the relationship to modern technology and our dependency on it is simply trying to get this story out to the world and encourage people to reflect on their own technology use and how it may be relative to their empathy, so they will try and make a change. Widespread belief is that empathy is a valuable trait and the fact that it is declining has alarmed many psychologists and scientists. Scientists and psychologists are running these tests through the youth, who are the future of our country, and they are finding disappointing results. If technology is making us lose empathy, and technology is just getting more and more advanced than we will continue to see less empathy. The people active in this narrative are not able to slow down technology, however, they can get the story out to promote some type of change.

This narrative is going to need a lot of publicity for us to see some change. There are movements to get kids off of electronics and out to the real world, these efforts can only do so much. The fixtures that compose it are here to stay. People will keep going on Facebook and continue texting. As of now, this is just starting to beginning a sprout  as an important issue. The people who are trying to get this noticed are on the right path, but I think it is going to take something bigger for it to really blow up, because of the huge economic interest that these companies have in our investment in their products. Since empathy is valued as an important human quality, it would be beneficial to conduct more experiments surrounding this. Sharing the findings is one way for people can understand what’s happening. Empathy is a quality that requires nurturing and cultivating, and as the future generations will need to develop this characteristic alongside increasingly sophisticated technology, a change is in order.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Jacob Hanawalt says:

    I think a lot of these issues have to do with how unadapted our culture is to technology. The huge advancement we’ve seen in technology have really only happened over the past few decades, with the rise of the smartphone less than ten years behind us. As we learn to incorporate these devices into out society, hopefully clear etiquette will form to the point where people will know it’s not okay to ignore others for their phone.

  2. Gabi P says:

    Is this empathy only lost over the internet when we aren’t having face-to-face contact or is it lost altogether?

  3. imanik says:

    This makes me wonder about the other countries. I’m sure other developed countries are having an empathy problem with their youth. But think about the 3 billion people without internet. I don’t know that it proves a point or anything but it’s interesting to think, they most likely have much more empathy than the other half of the world. And nice meme by the way:)

  4. I started to read this book called the Science of Evil which talked about how empathy is the main thing that keeps people from becoming evil, basically. I want to know what a lack of empathy will do to our society. Also, like Gabi said, will we have a lack of empathy all around or will it just be on the computer that people can’t empathize? If it is only on the computer how will a lack of empathy change the way people use social networking sites?

    1. amandalevin says:

      Diminishing empathy is real – and across the spectrum of pour social activities. It is the height of self-interest… and I often fear a real byproduct of an unchecked market economy.

      I am also curious about the relationship between religious practice and empathy – it would be an interesting study.

  5. Thomas Jackson says:

    Wouldn’t globalization actually increase our empathy? we’re meeeting new people from diffferent countries around the world, and befriending them. it’s a fascinating phenomena, when you think about it. I have friends in Israel, Germany, France, Canada, England and Ireland, that i never would have met if i didn’t have the internet, and i assure you i am not lacking in empathy for them.

    1. amandalevin says:

      This has been my fundamental question as well, and harkens back to Tiffany Schlain’s premise that there is a positive correlation between exposure and empathy. I feel like I become more empathetic as a result of internet use because I may learn about things I had no idea about that inspire empathy (or more importantly, action). However, I do wonder if by seeing more and more and more and more of these things, we become numb to them – and somewhat detached, and able to compartmentalize the stimuli not only to survive, but to be able to avoid weeping all day every day…

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