Empathy in the Age of Technology

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Editorial and Opinion  |  House: Booksie Classic
This essay details the arising issue of the decline in empathy due to the advancements being made in technology.

Submitted: April 01, 2017

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Submitted: April 01, 2017

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Empathy in the Age of Technology

Everybody has been a witness to this certain scenario. It is so common in today’s world that most don’t even think twice about it. You are in a restaurant with your family or a group of friends, and across the room, you catch a glance of another group just like yours. However, all of them are looking down… because they just couldn’t wait to check their feed on Instagram or send a funny text to their friend. A harsh light illuminates their blank stares, and their food is untouched. Nobody asks about each other’s days. Nobody even makes eye contact. Like most people today, they are completely engrossed in their phones. New forms of technology have taken over their lives, and social media has made them less social than ever.

Prince Ea, a word artist and filmmaker said it is “Ironic how these touch screens make us lose touch.” In a world of iPhones, iPads, and iMacs, and when everything revolves around obtaining the perfect selfie, we continue to lose sight of the “us’s” and “we’s” which differentiate us from other species (“Can We Auto-Correct Humanity?”). The question remains, how can we retain our empathetic traits as humans in this progressive, advancing world? With non-stop activities flying rampant in the majority of people’s schedules these days, quiet and rare moments with friends or family which allow for slowing down and reconnecting should be revered as miracles. So why wouldn’t the group in the restaurant be utilizing this time which was granted to them? Perhaps because they have become obsessed with the virtual world and cannot bring themselves to return to reality with real people to talk and laugh with. Somehow it is not enough to tell the person sitting across the table the funny joke you came up with instead of the person sitting at the other end of a phone. As technology continues to advance, roping more and more people into the universal addiction with screens, a worrisome and steep decline in empathy and the traits which make us human has presented itself, and does not look as if it is going to go away anytime soon.

Just how attached to our phones are we, though? Probably more than most people would think. In fact, new research by British psychologists suggests that young adults utilize their mobile devices about twice as much as they think they do (Gregoire). Are we so used to checking our phones that we don’t even realize when we are doing it anymore? The answer to this question is seemingly yes, and it goes even further. Studies indicate some mobile device owners check their devices every six and a half minutes, even when they don’t notice their phone ringing or vibrating (Becker). It has become a sort of subconscious habit for people to check their various technological devices for notifications, as if searching for a way to escape into their virtual world, even when they have not received the recognizable “ding” or vibration to alert them. Does this mean most people would rather isolate themselves with their devices instead of being with other humans? Or is it just a habit we cannot seem to break?

It is not just habits that have arisen with advancements in technology, however. It is deeper than that. We have become dependent on our devices. “84% of cell phone users claim they could not go a single day without their device” (Becker). How is it possible that only a few years after smartphones were invented, we suddenly cannot live without them? We have become so obsessed with the online way of life that we cannot revert back to the world before these gadgets existed, even if it is just for 24 hours. This technological revolution did not just affect a small group of people either. According to a Nielsen company audience report, “About 81% of adults in the United States have smartphones” (Howard). This is up from 35% in 2011 as found in Pew Research Center’s survey conducted in the same year (“Mobile Fact Sheet”). This means in about five years, almost 50% of the United States population bought a smartphone. This number is staggering and is continuing to grow. How long will it be until everybody in the world owns some sort of technological device? At the rate as of now, very soon.

So what is the issue with technology? The whole purpose of it is to give us a new and more efficient way of communicating and gaining access to information. With the advancements in technology come new applications in social media as well, which also help to promote communication between people. It even says it in the name: social media; media which is meant to be shared with others, helping us to become more social. Technology and social media have been a great source of entertainment, information, and connection with others for many. The ability to spread positive messages and discover important news at the touch of a button is incredible. It would be insane not to reap the benefits of technology and social media.

Yet, what if those benefits aren’t turning out to be as good as they are expected to be? Are we really being more social on social media? Or is it actually making us self-consumed and isolated? This obsession many of us have of racking up the most likes on an Instagram post out of all of our friends, or obtaining the perfect selfie after about 100 tries cannot be healthy. We have begun to trap ourselves in a never-ending game with technology that doesn’t allow us to break away from it. Our thought process has been altered so that instead of wanting to hang out with friends for the fun and thrill of it, we want to capture the moment in a picture or video to show to the world how popular we are. However, this takes the enjoyment out of living. “Researchers recently discovered that one in three people felt worse after visiting Facebook and more dissatisfied with their lives” (Becker). So why do we keep returning to this source of stress and unhappiness? Most likely because it has become an addiction. In fact, there is a recently discovered psychological disorder called the Fear of Missing Out, or FOMO, which was found to be a result of the improvements in technology (Becker). This shows that we are beginning to have a serious issue in today’s society. Furthermore, if we are isolating ourselves from the real world, how is this affecting our ability to empathize with others?

Empathy is a cornerstone of human interaction and life. Essentially, empathy is the ability to sense the emotions of others mixed with the capability of imagining what another might be thinking or feeling, according to the general definition given by emotion researchers (“Empathy”). This quality of ours is one of the most important foundational principles of human behavior and conduct. Our unique capacity to feel what others are feeling and identify the emotions of someone else just by observing them differentiates us from all other animals.

There is actually more than one type of empathy. Affective empathy is experiencing sensations or feelings in response to how others are feeling and mirroring emotions. For example, if somebody was feeling stressed in response to another’s fear or anxiety, they would be undergoing affective empathy. The other form of empathy is called cognitive empathy. This is the ability to identify or understand others’ feelings and emotions (“Empathy”). Both of these variations of empathy are crucial to being an ethical person. The more practice you have with empathizing, the more you will be able to help others when they are feeling down and the more you will be able to encourage and celebrate with others when they are doing well.

The benefits we experience as a result of empathy are plentiful. According to research and studies, empathy is the baseline for being a moral person. It can help in several specific areas of negativity. For example, practicing empathy is a step towards decreasing racism and prejudice against others, and opposing inequality by gaining perspective of the other’s situation. It is also very advantageous in relationships and marriages to control fighting and boost understanding between the two individuals. However, one of the most important issues empathy can be of aid to, especially in today’s world, is bullying. A study found that “bullies lack affective empathy but not cognitive empathy, suggesting that they know how their victims feel but lack the kind of empathy that would deter them from hurting others.” If both forms of empathy are promoted and encouraged to be practiced more, bullying could rapidly diminish and many people, especially adolescents, would benefit (“Empathy”). Since empathy is a “building block of morality,” it is patently necessary to create more of an untroubled and content environment for us to live in (“Empathy”).

It was also, for the longest time, thought to be innate. This idea was supported in a study conducted in 2007 by Yale University developmental psychologists where it was discovered that six-month-old infants showed an affinity for dolls shown helping others rather than similar looking dolls being depicted as bullies (Zaki). It is our natural instinct to feel in response to others. There is no class we go to in the very beginning of our lives to teach us the basics of empathy.

However, a study led by Sara H. Konrath of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor says differently. Her research, which was published in “Personality and Social Psychology Review,” shows that the amount of empathy college students rate themselves of having has decreased since 1980, declining especially rapidly in the past 10 years. The analysis was administered through a well-known questionnaire called the Interpersonal Reactivity Index. The test asks the subjects whether or not they agree to statements including ones like, “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me” and “I try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision.” Over 14,000 responses were collated, and using this data, Konrath found out how scores had changed over the years using a process called cross-temporal meta-analysis. The results showed “about three quarters of students today give themselves a lower rating of empathy than the average student 30 years ago” (Zaki). Another study found similar results: “College students who hit campus after 2000 have empathy levels that are 40% lower than those who came before them” (Szalavitz).

This steep drop in empathy is troubling. How can we have lost so much of our ability to empathize in such a short amount of time? Well, according to many, technology is likely the most responsible for this worrying absence. “With so much time spent interacting with others online rather than in reality, interpersonal dynamics such as empathy might certainly be altered,” (Konrath). The separation an obsession with technology causes from other humans means our ability to detect emotions by observing faces and body language suffers. Of course, not all of the empathy a person has will vanish, but it is similar to most skills in life - the more you practice it, the better you get, whereas, if you distance yourself from the activity, the more you will forget it.

The lack of face-to-face connection isn’t the only cause for the decline in empathy, however. There is also the issue of animosity online. The internet is said to be, “a treacherous world full of cynicism, harassment, and bullying.” A reported 43% of teens from the ages of 13 to 17 deal with cyberbullying (Roberts). This number is massive. Almost half of the population of teenagers feels targeted and bullied when online, especially on social media. Yet, this statistic makes sense to a degree because cyberbullying is much easier for many to commit than traditional bullying. Since the bully and the victim are separated by a screen, for many it is not as hard to cope with the guilt since the victim’s face cannot be seen. This is an enormous misconception yet people continue to abuse their privilege of having social media. For example, in 2012, during the Summer Olympics, Tom Daley, a British diver, reported a repulsive comment on Twitter after he didn’t win the gold medal. The tweet read, “You let your dad down I hope you know that,” (Roberts). It refers to the fact that Daley was hoping to win gold for his father who had died the year prior to the Olympics from brain cancer. These types of comments can leave lasting distress and are immensely inconsiderate.

This issue stems from another problem which goes even deeper. At the root of the situation is our constant exposure to violence, war, terrorism, and other horrid news from sources of technology. If we are always hearing more news about cruelty or extreme acts of brutality, people can become desensitized to the pain of others and can begin to act in a more narcissistic way as well. By not identifying with what the people in those situations are going through, our empathy level diminishes.

The continuous climb in advancements in technology, and the directly correlated rise in screen time of people have caused a massive drop in empathy and moral qualities, shedding a narcissistic light on this generation. Yet, can we reverse this effect? Is it possible for us to regain our empathetic traits? With the young generation labeled with derogatory nicknames ranging from “Generation Me” to the “Look at Me” generation, it doesn’t seem likely (Konrath). However, there are small steps people can take to promote and encourage empathy in all of us. The answer is not eliminating technology from our lives entirely. That would be unrealistic in the modern day and age. We can limit our usage of it, though. Instead of staying locked indoors all day, wrapped up in our phones, getting out into nature once in a while can help greatly. Also, taking time to talk to others face-to-face instead of through a screen, as well as reading and practicing other empathetic activities will help people to recover some of their abilities in identifying others’ feelings. Prince Ea declared, “I’m so tired of performing in a pageantry of vanity, and conforming to this accepted form and digital insanity.” Let’s follow suit and begin our journey back to empathy. Let’s become human once more.

 
 

Works Cited

Becker, Joshua. "7 Important Reasons to Unplug and Find Space."

BecomingMinimalist, www.becomingminimalist.com/unplug-please/.

Accessed 2 Mar. 2017.

 

"Empathy." Greater Good, Greater Good Science Center at the U of California,

Berkeley, greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/empathy/definition. Accessed 4

Mar. 2017.

 

Gregoire, Carolyn. "You Probably Use Your Smartphone Way More than You Think."

Huffington Post, 5 Nov. 2015, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/

smartphone-usage-estimates_us_5637687de4b063179912dc96. Accessed 25 Mar.

2017.

 

Howard, Jacqueline. "Americans Devote More than 10 Hours a Day to Screen Time,

and Growing." CNN, Cable News Network, 29 July 2016, www.cnn.com/2016/06/30/

health/americans-screen-time-nielsen/. Accessed 2 Mar. 2017.

 

Konrath, Sara H. "Why Is Empathy Decreasing?" Genius, Genius Media Group,

genius.com/Dr-sara-h-konrath-why-is-empathy-decreasing-annotated. Accessed

7 Mar. 2017.

 

Merriam-Webster. www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/social%20media. Accessed 20

Mar. 2017.

Merriam-Webster. www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empathy. Accessed 7 Mar.

2017.

 

"Mobile Fact Sheet." Pew Reasearch Center, 12 Jan. 2017, www.pewinternet.org/

fact-sheet/mobile/. Accessed 20 Mar. 2017.

 

Roberts, Jeff. "Why Are People so Mean? Has the Internet Destroyed Empathy &

Compassion?" Collective Evolution, 8 May 2014, www.collective-evolution.com/

2014/05/08/

why-are-people-so-mean-has-the-internet-destroyed-empathy-compassion/.

Accessed 7 Mar. 2017.

 

Szalavitz, Maia. "Shocker: Empathy Dropped 40% in College Students since 2000."

Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 28 May 2010,

www.psychologytoday.com/blog/born-love/201005/

shocker-empathy-dropped-40-in-college-students-2000. Accessed 7 Mar. 2017.

 

Zaki, Jamil. "What, Me Care? Young Are Less Empathetic." Scientific American, 1

Jan. 2011, www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-me-care/. Accessed 7

Mar. 2017.


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