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3 strategies for using empathy as an antidote to cyberbullying

By Nicole Krueger 10/20/2014 Digital citizenship

Is social media killing empathy?

It’s a valid question when 88 percent of social-media-using teens have witnessed cruelty online and research has repeatedly shown that many of today’s adolescents — who spend more than seven hours a day consuming media — struggle with the ability to recognize other people’s emotions. With children’s socialization increasingly moving into the digital realm, something is clearly getting lost in translation.

“There's a cost to this change in the way kids socialize, and that has to do with how empathy develops,” journalist Emily Bazelon said in a recent edWeb webinar on cyberbullying. “We all can tell in our regular interactions what it means to be looking at someone face to face and the way we read social cues when we can see what they look like. For kids, this can really affect their social and emotional development.

“There's some research that shows that kids who spend many, many hours socializing online tend to report fewer emotionally healthy relationships and fewer good feelings about friendships with other kids their age.”

That doesn’t mean we should toss out social media and all the benefits it offers for students. It simply means educators and parents need to become more aware of the empathy gap and find ways to counteract it when teaching students about digital citizenship. Below are three strategies for bringing more empathy into the equation.

1. Expand the circle of caring.

Conversations about empathy often revolve around an attempt to quantify it, focusing on whether children have the ability to empathize or how much empathy they have. But those conversations miss the point, said Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd, co-founder of the Making Caring Common Project.

“The issue often isn't whether children can empathize or how much empathy they have. It is who they have empathy for,” he said in a Huffington Post article. “For most of us, it's not hard to have empathy for our family members and close friends. It's also human nature to have more empathy for people who are like us in some way. But the real issue is whether children (and adults) have empathy outside that circle.”

He offers an empathy-building toolkit to help educators develop a caring school culture and teach students to expand their personal circles of concern.

2. Engage students with storytelling.

Storytelling offers a powerful entry point for engaging students’ empathy by actually changing the way their brains work. Neuroeconomics pioneer Paul Zak, who studied how people respond to stories, found that even simple narratives can trigger potent empathetic responses through the release of neurochemicals such as cortisol and oxytocin.



“Stories have tremendous potential to help kids reflect on not just how other people are feeling but why that is a value,” Bazelon said. “They kind of lift kids out of their own situations and give them another vantage point and a way to think about other people's experiences.”

In “Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy,” she provides a guide for middle and high school teachers to help students explore the ramifications of bullying by studying the stories of several real-life students who have been harassed online or at school.

3. Convert bystanders to upstanders.

Nine in 10 teens who have witnessed bullying on social media say they’ve ignored it rather than telling the cyberbully to stop. How can educators encourage these students to speak out instead?

For starters, we can take advantage of the fact that the lack of face-to-face contact in online interactions — which often makes it easier for bullies to disregard the feelings of others — also has a positive side: It can make it easier for students to become “upstanders,” or those who stand up for cyberbullying victims, Bazelon said.

Educators can help encourage this behavior through role-playing, peer-to-peer mentoring and helping students reflect on what it means to stand up for others.

Want to learn more about weaving digital citizenship into your curriculum? Join our Digital Citizenship Network.

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