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
“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
empathetic responses through the release of neurochemicals such as cortisol
“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.”
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
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
mentoring and helping students reflect on what
it means to stand up for others.
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