Putting yourself in another’s shoes…I trust most of you are familiar with this phrase. We use this phrase when we’re talking about “empathy” which refers to understanding what others experience and feel, and then reacting accordingly (in most cases, with compassion and care). Empathy is a fundamental skill for our personal and social lives. It allows us to form and maintain relationships, better collaborate with others, and more effectively manage conflict. It also fosters positive feelings and increases wellbeing.
Have you thought about whether technology affects empathy? Many researchers have, given various possible effects technology might have on us. Some studies show that empathy is negatively affected by technology use, especially social media use, mostly because technology tends to decrease face-to-face interaction. For instance, one study found that individuals who had conversations when their mobile devices were not present, reported higher levels of empathic concern. However, others point out that people who are high in narcissism and low in empathy are likely to use social media more. It is, thus, not clear whether technology negatively affects empathy or whether people who are low in empathy tend to use technology more.
There is some evidence that there has been a decrease in empathy in the last decade, especially in the United States. Although we’re not certain, misuse of technology could be one of the reasons of this decrease, according to some studies. For example, aggressive content and being exposed to characters who lack empathy may influence empathic concern negatively, whereas seeing prosocial acts on social media may help us enhance our empathy skills. Different features of social media and the content used in a given technological tool may also be important in this respect. For example, chatting, viewing photos, tagging photos, checking to see what someone is up to are driven by different motives and could be related to empathy in different ways – either positively and negatively. Another study showed that playing prosocial video games increases empathy.
We need technology; it makes our lives easier and more efficient. It provides us with vast opportunities to learn and grow. It makes us connected to others. But we also need satisfying, healthy social relationships. Empathy is one of the skills that we need to possess form and maintain such relationships. Let’s mind the way we use technology, rather than blaming technology.
Alloway, T., Runac, R., Quershi, M. & Kemp, G. (2014). Is Facebook Linked to Selfishness? Investigating the Relationships among Social Media Use, Empathy, and Narcissism. Social Networking, 3, 150-158.
Greitemeyer, T., Osswald,S. & Brauer, M. (2010). Playing Prosocial Video Games Increases Empathy and Decreases Schadenfreude. Emotion, 10 (6), 796-802.
Konrath, S.H., O’Brien, E. H. & Hising, C. (2010). Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15 (2), 180-198.
Misra, S., Cheng, L., Genevie, J. & Yuan, M. (2014). The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices. Environment and Behavior, 48 (2), 275-298.