The Other Side of the Keyboard: Preserving Empathy in the Digital Age / by Nima Tonekaboni

empathy

How has technology changed our minds?

In terms of connectivity for business, news, events, and satisfying surface level curiosity about what your high school ex had for lunch, there has never been a better times to be alive.

But as our digital options for connectivity increase are we losing our ability to make deeper, more meaningful connections?

One analysis of 72 studies found that empathy has declined among college students between 1979 and 2009. They’re less likely to take the perspective of other people, and show less concern for others. ~Adam Alter

What is empathy? 

The ability to see what others see or to be able to put yourself in the other’s shoes has been defined as empathy. Watch it in action with empathy expert Brené Brown in a great 3 min video.

How do we learn and develop empathy?

Just like any other skill, empathy is like a muscle which needs to be worked on. The more we dedicate time, energy and attention to learn and develop empathy, the better we get at understanding other people’s feelings. 

So what is wrong with digital interactions? Aren't we developing this skill while interacting online?

There are at least three major reasons why digital technology is responsible for this lack of empathy; especially among those being raised in the digital age:

One: Declining of the boredom threshold.

There are areas in the brain that learn empathy. Those areas are involved in daydreaming and thinking about thoughts and feelings and are only active when we do nothing. These areas shut off when we’re engaged with our cell phones. By being constantly busy we lose the opportunity to daydream and develop the ability to empathize. 

The neuroscientist Dr Levitin says: “Daydreaming or mind-wandering, as we know now, is a natural state of the brain… The mind-wandering mode is responsible for our moments of greatest creativity and insight; when we are able to solve the problems that previously seemed unsolvable by making connections among things that we didn’t previously see as connected.” 

Being busy all the time is robbing us of our most creative moments. “Boredom threshold has declined to the point that you get into an elevator for 5 seconds and you take out your phone! Boredom is very important for productivity, creativity and new ideas.” – Adam Alter

So we are losing the ability to create and to exercise our imagination, an important component of empathy, by being constantly busy.

Two: The essence of digital interactions

Our digital interactions give nothing in terms of visual feedback. Tone is also lacking, a fact that leads to misunderstandings and misinterpretations of meaning (something anyone who has ever tried and failed to convey sarcasm online can attest to).

In the book “Irresistible”, Adam Alter emphasizes the importance of having real-world interactions and stresses that online interactions aren’t just another form of human interactions with the same results. Humans need to watch other people’s reactions in order to learn empathy. As he says: “Empathy can’t flourish without immediate feedback, and it’s a very slow developing skill.”

Clinical Psychologist Dr.Catherine Steiner-Adair who has devoted her life to working with children, parents and schools stresses the importance of having direct communication: “Texting is the worst possible training ground for anyone aspiring to a mature, loving, sensitive relationship.” 

The inability to see other people’s points of view in online interactions is studied in the Online Disinhibition Effect by psychologist John Suler, PHD in 2004. The online disinhibition effect examines the fact that when we don’t see the other person’s face, we become disrespectful and disregard of others’ feelings while interacting (Ex:The comment section of YouTube videos). Dr.Suler later expanded his six factors in his 2016 book: Psychology of the digital age 

Three: The illusion of making friends

Online interactions may give us the illusion that we are building rapport and making friends very easily and instantly. Simon Sinek, the author of New York Times best-selling books “Start With Why” and “Leaders Eat Last” emphasizes the importance of working on the ability to build long term relationships and indicates that mastering this skill needs a life-long effort. 

“The strengths of relationships are slow, meandering, uncomfortable and messy processes.” He says “in the world that everything you want you can have it instantaneously, there’s no App for mastering this skill.”

In other words: not only should we not be relying solely on online interactions or social media to build relationships, but also we NEED offline interactions and we HAVE TO spend some time to get better at the art of empathy one step at a time.

What can be done?

First, just knowing that the internet and social media changes our minds, behavior and relationships can lead us to develop a deeper awareness to our actions online.

Second, we should take the responsibility and manage the way and the extent we use technology.

“There’s nothing wrong with social media, it’s the imbalance.” – Simon Sinek

And this imbalance is affecting every aspect of our lives. 

We can benefit from technology if we keep asking these questions while interacting online:

  1. How am I dedicating my time to these technologies? How much time am I actually spending?
  2. Is the current interaction I’m having online helping me to establish long-term relationships?
  3. How can I benefit from the internet and develop my skills?

As the technology brings us new solutions, it creates negative and/or positive behavioural outcomes; And as we embrace online connectivity in our fast-paced lives, let’s also take some time to consider how much our online existence is reshaping our beliefs, behaviours, and values.  And be alert to their impacts on our lives.

References: 

  1. How social media is affecting teens
  2. The Organized Mind by Daniel L. Levitin
  3. Are you an addict
  4. The Age of Empathy by Frans de Waal 
  5. The Irresistible by Adam Alter
  6. Simon Sinek interview