An article by Alon Shwartz, founder of unGlue, an app that helps families manage technology boundaries, has been making the rounds at Shelterwood. In it, he shares a conversation with Dr. Michele Borba, author of Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in our All-About-Me World. Borba connects big dips in empathy to big rises in screen time:
“Our children became very plugged in around the year 2000. It’s very hard to be empathetic and feel for another human being if you can’t read another person’s emotions. You don’t learn emotional literacy facing a screen. You don’t learn emotional literacy with emojis.”
Borba is not alone in her assessment. Researchers who study empathy are tracking some conflicting trends, as social scientists try to sort out complex causes and correlations, how social media use enables and/or disrupts face-to-face time, and which specific online behaviors seem to lead to a loss of empathy.
- A 2010 University of Michigan study showed a big empathy drop in college students around the year 2000. Researchers said college students in 2010 measured 40 percent lower in empathy than those 30 years ago.
- A 2014 experiment showed that people who put away their phones during conversations reported higher levels of empathy.
- A 2012 study of the ways teens thought about their online behavior found that most were using an individualistic, self-focused perspective instead of using moral or ethical lenses.
- Alternatively, a 2016 Dutch study of young adolescents found that social media use actually raised empathy over a one-year period of time.
- And a 2015 study found only online gaming, not other forms of screen time, reduced empathetic behaviors in the real world.
Here at Shelterwood, we have seen firsthand the damage overusing technology can do to teenagers. We’ve also seen the healing power empathy can have in young people’s lives—both given and received. What we know for sure is that teenagers can learn to be more empathetic, both in-person and online. Here are four ways experts suggest we can help the young people in our lives build their empathetic muscle:
Help teens manage their own emotions. One of the biggest blocks to empathy is not being able to emotionally handle someone else’s pain. Teenagers who are overly distressed by others’ negative emotions are more likely to use technology to distance themselves from difficult real-life situations or not take empathetic action when it’s needed. Learning how to identify emotions and implementing self-compassion practices can help teens take care of their feelings, so they can take care with others’.
Encourage their imagination. If your teen is having a hard time conjuring up empathy for someone, ask them to imagine themselves in their position. Role play conversations, if it helps. Tell them a story about a time you felt similarly. As them to tell a story, too. Use books, movies and songs from a wide variety of perspectives to help adolescents practice putting themselves in other people’s shoes.
Make your online behavior expectations clear. Set boundaries not just on the time spent online but how it’s spent. Guidelines such as no anonymous posting, leaving only a positive online trail and only posting things they would want their favorite grandparent to see can help give teens an online empathy gut check.
Model empathy. The best way to teach empathy is to live empathy. Practice taking other’s perspectives. Notice others’ feelings and ask about them. Point out the rationalizations or excuses people use to not act with empathy. Actively expand your circles, work to find common ground with others, and challenge yourself if you notice a tendency to label anyone as undeserving of empathy. Watching you treat everyone with empathy is the most powerful lesson your teen can get.
Is your teen struggling with empathy or out-of-control online behaviors? You’re not alone. Learn how Shelterwood can help.
“How to Raise Your Teens to Be Good Digital Citizens,” Unglue.com. 10 January, 2017.
“Teaching empathy: Evidence-based tips for fostering empathy in children,” by Gwen Dwar. Parentingscience.com. Accessed 18 July 2019.
“For Educators: How to Build Empathy and Strengthen Your School Community.” Making Caring Common Project. Harvard Graduate School of Education. Accessed 18 July 2019.