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Lack of empathy in a wired world


(First of three parts)

“Young people are so rude these days,” says a teacher in a co-ed school. “They are so loud and noisy in cafés, not caring for those working on their laptops. In school, no one volunteers to erase the (writing on the) board or carry my bag, unlike in the past.

“When they rush past on their way to nowhere and happen to bump into you, they do not even apologize. In the movies, they keep on texting and even talk on the phone, not caring if they are spoiling the experience for other people. They are so used to characters being killed left and right on screen that they do not seem to care anymore.”

He concludes, “Our youth lack empathy.”

Several of my college students say their relationships start online. Though not ideal, there is nothing inherently wrong with this. But their relationships also tend to end as abruptly and publicly.

One of my male students angrily bashes his ex-girlfriend, who broke up with him through text. “When I confronted her, she would not even talk to me!” he fumes.

Another student found out he was dumped only when his ex’s Facebook status reverted to “Single.” “The whole world knew we were no longer together, except me,” he says. “She doesn’t have a heart.”

Generation Me

In 2011, psychologists Sara Konrath, Edward O’Brien and Courtney Hsing of the University of Michigan analyzed 72 different studies of 14,000 American college students for the last 30 years, from 1979 to 2009.

They found that college students today scored 40-percent lower in empathy than those of the past decades, with the biggest drop coming at the turn of the millennium.

Students today do not agree as much as before with statements like “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective” and “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.”

Various reasons have been advanced for the lack of empathy of Generation Me. Violent media can be a factor, making people insensitive to others’ pain.

But the rise of social media can also contribute to this decrease in empathy.

“The ease of having ‘friends’ online might make people more likely to just tune out when they don’t feel like responding to others’ problems, a behavior that could carry over offline,” O’Brien says.

According to the University of Michigan News, “Add in the hypercompetitive atmosphere and inflated expectations of success … and you have a social environment that works against slowing down and listening to someone who needs a bit of sympathy.”

“College students today may be so busy worrying about themselves and their own issues that they don’t have time to spend empathizing with others, or at least perceive such time to be limited,” O’Brien adds.

Fragmented lives

It may seem easier to start relationships online, but this may not necessarily transfer over to maintaining a stable one in real life.

“There have been significant declines in the number of organizations and meetings people are involved in, as well as in the number of average family dinners and friendly visits,” the researchers say. “Indeed, people today have a significantly lower number of close others to whom they can express their private thoughts and feelings.”

If we throw in the easy accessibility and lightning speeds of technologies, we tend to get more frustrated or even bored when things do not go as we want them to, resulting in less empathic interactions.

To top it off, technologies now are fragmented. Think of a family with each member on his/her own iPad, iPhone, laptop and so forth, channeled to his/her own personal interests and self-expression.

In a world of fragmentation, it would be less easy for many of us to reach out to other people and practice empathy in our dealings with them.


“Today’s adolescents have no less need than those of previous generations to learn empathic skills, to think about their values and identity and to manage and express feelings,” says Massachusetts Institute of Technology clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle in her book “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.”

Our children and our teens need time to reflect, to think, to discover themselves, others and the world around them. But with intrusive technology, “when is downtime, when is stillness?” Turkle asks.

I am not saying that text messaging and social networking make reflection and thought impossible. But these “do little to cultivate” them.

For example, since starting relationships seem so easy and smooth online, these seem not to be prized as much. Therefore, ending relationships is treated as easily.

“How [can] … children … develop empathy and compassion when the electronic world allows them to meet and discard people at the drop of a hat?”  say United States teen counselors Barbara Melton and Susan Shankle in their book “What in the World Are Your Kids Doing Online?”

E-mail the author at blessbook@yahoo.com.

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Tags: Behavior , column , Learning , queena n. lee-chua , wired world , Youth

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