Social Media Destroys Empathy? Sorry, That's B.S.

Ozzy Osbourne

Adults always think "kids nowadays" are somehow qualitatively worse than previous generations; unsurprisingly, this comparison is implicitly flattering to the adults, who remember their childhoods as clean-scrubbed, healthy, respectful and studious little angels. Typically, once we have judged today's kids we start casting around for explanations as to why the little weasels are the way they are -- which is to say, not as good as us. Of course, the rules of this game forbid considering the most obvious explanation -- whatever negative characteristics they have probably reflect their parenting, or lack thereof -- in favor of more marginal environmental causes. It's obviously TV or video games or Ozzy Osbourne or Black Flag or NWA or Marylin Manson or 50 Cent or the latest blame boogie man: social media.

A recent example comes from the much-publicized results of a study by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, which found that college students today display less "empathy" than their predecessors from 30 years ago. Specifically, the study of attitudes among 14,000 college students from 1979-2009 found that college students today are less likely to agree with statements like "I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective," or "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me."

Searching for the causes behind this rise in heartless S.O.B.-ness in "Generation Me" (as they're dubbed in news reports) researchers from the U of M offered a number of possible explanations, including the traditional favorite: media. Now violent video games have been joined by social media in churning out a generation of sociopaths, it seems. The rationale behind the social media explanation, as summed up by one researcher: "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."

Sorry, but I have to call "B.S." on this whole thing -- the reasoning, the findings, and the premise of the study itself.

First of all, blaming social media for a supposed decrease in empathy makes no sense. Yes, it's easier to have 'friends' online, including people you've never met or rarely talk to, but this reasoning supposes that college students equate or confuse online 'friends' with real friendships -- basically thinking "well I've got all these virtual 'friends' on Facebook so I don't need to put up with your tedious problems in face-to-face interactions." The study presents no evidence supporting this assumption, however, and I personally doubt it is true: I believe most human beings are inherently "physical-social," meaning they crave direct, face-to-face engagement, with all its emotional demands. By the same token, blaming social media also somehow presumes that online relationships don't require empathy or patience, but that obviously depends on what kind of relationship it is: being "friends" with someone you've never met may be low-impact, but my friend who reads to his girlfriend every night over Skype obviously falls in a different category (crowd: awwww).

Second, the study methodology is silly: from what I can see, it appears the researchers just asked people whether they have empathy or not. This approach is obviously vulnerable to a number of pitfalls. There's the inherent unreliability of any self-reported survey, especially when it concerns something perceived as a moral or ethical issue. Who's to say the college students 30 years ago weren't a bunch of poseurs? "Why yes, I am very empathetic, I assure you!" I mean, it's a little odd: where was the groundswell of empathetic activism by 20-somethings in the 1980s (not a decade remembered for altruism)?

As for today's college students, maybe they're just more realistic about their own behaviors, in which case I would give them credit for being more in touch with themselves (if not other people). At the same time, they might also be falling prey to self-reporting error, offering an unfairly harsh self-portrait when really they are just a bunch of big softies. Maybe, maybe not -- the point is, I don't think you'll get an accurate picture just by asking.

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1 comment about "Social Media Destroys Empathy? Sorry, That's B.S.".
  1. Robin Hafitz from open mind strategy , May 28, 2010 at 10:42 p.m.

    maybe the questions are badly worded for today's young adults. they simply don't HAVE to "sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective" since they're always in touch and KNOW, and they think "tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me" sounds so saccharine that it warrants a 'no.' i do a lot of research with young folks. from what i've seen, empathy is alive and well, but interest in world events is only for the small group who have the time and inclination to wade through the cesspool of news media. (of course, a big reason they don't have the time is they're busy with social networking).