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Empathy on the Internet

LAKSHMI on July 03, 2015

“Has the internet made us less compassionate and empathetic?” - a common doubt raised by rampant Internet use around the world. There are frequent reports of negative consequences of the Internet – loss of peace of mind, self esteem, and even life. With “like” buttons and opportunities for constructive comments in the interactive world of the web, it seems that people could potentially be more empathic to others online, but the general feeling is that the rise of technology-based communication has caused a deterioration in face-to-face empathy. Is this true?

Girl on internet covering her face

88% of social media-using teens have witnessed other people being cruel on social network sites, according to a Pew Research Report in 2011. Four years since, it is logical to expect that the numbers would not have changed much, given the greater proliferation of Internet over the years and the addition of more digital natives to the mix. The Internet has indeed proven to be a fertile ground for cruelty, trolling and bullying. The anonymity offered by the Internet allows people to exhibit personality traits that cannot be exhibited in real life. The emotional detachment of the screen makes interactions less real, allowing less censorship. But is there a direct connection between the loss of empathy and Internet use, or is it merely mass hysteria?

One study showed that online activities do not significantly deteriorate cognitive and affective real-world empathy but actually improve time spent in face-to-face communication. This could be potentially construed as true if video chatting could be called face-to-face communication. The same study however showed that video gaming reduced real-world empathy in both men and women. The negative effect of video gaming on empathy has also been scientifically proven; Dr. Gary Small at UCLA has shown using MRI brain scans that young adults were able to identify happy faces faster than angry faces, but playing a violent video game before the facial recognition experiments made them much slower in recognizing happy facial expression.

There are other studies, however, that show that online presence does adversely affect both virtual and real-world empathy. British psychologists, led by Paul Goddard, at the University of Lincoln, argue that people may actually be hard-wired to feel a closeness to people physically close to them, that they can see, rather than a virtual presence. The lack of nonverbal cues in the online world significantly contributes to lower levels of empathy in the virtual world. The ambiguity of context in Internet communication can often be perceived as a threatening situation, and the flight-or-fight attitude is triggered, resulting in an escalating sense of offense as a form of defense.

Sara H. Konrath of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor found that the self-reported empathy of college students has declined since 1980, with a steep drop in the past decade. This, understandably, coincided with the rise of students’ self-reported narcissism reported by Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University. Konrath believes that the increase in social isolation, has led to the drop in empathy. An experiment involving pre-teens in a “tech-free” five day camp examined the effect of face-to-face interaction on nonverbal emotion–cue recognition. As expected, the imposed tech break significantly improved recognition of nonverbal emotion cues for both facial expressions and videotaped scenes, indicating that damage to social interaction caused by too much tech-indulgence.

Another serious Internet-based, or indeed any form of media-based deterrent to empathy is desensitization to shocking images and events. The “going-viral” of gruesome videos online, not only feeds grim curiosity but also removes the element of horror or even honor. In Monika Lewinsky’s words, ”a rush to judgment, enabled by technology, [leads] to mobs of virtual stone-throwers”.  

There are benefits of staying connected on the Internet as well. Pew Research found that social media users have more close friends, more trust in people and are more politically involved than non social media users. TrendWatching.com goes as far as calling the digital natives generation as Generation G, “G” standing for "generous", because they are catalyzing a cultural shift where “giving is the new taking” – the millennial generation (13-25 year olds), contrary to popular belief of being non-empathetic due to technology overload, are already making a difference - 61% percent of the Gen G in America feel personally responsible for making a difference in the world. Considering that this generation outnumbers baby boomers, there is promise for a generous world where sharing and contributing to the common good are instinctive and such an attitude will find global reach because of the worldwide penetration of this medium. William Strauss and Neil Howe believe that the millenials are a “hero generation” who will resolve problems by applying the tools and mindset of sharing, adopted from the virtual world.

The ubiquitous Internet has the potential to enhance the well-being of individuals, society, and the planet itself through development of empathy and compassion. There have been attempts already to make technology serve a higher purpose. There are , for example, many apps and related experiences (such as Mood Gym or Smiling Mind) that help us become more compassionate, more empathetic, and perhaps more peaceful. But beyond apps and techno-philanthropy, it is essential for every user of the Internet to understand that she is a owner of this pervasive new world, and it is up to her to keep it civil and clean, and make it a mirror of a compassionate real world in which she hopes to live.

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