Let me begin this article by saying that I believe social media is a wonderful invention. As the regular black sheep in virtually any company, social media is how I found my tribe as a teenager. It connects people from all around the world to share one common space where we can learn from each other and grow.
Even so, social media in itself is not what’s wonderful. It merely presents opportunities for wonderful things to take place. It’s just a tool. A hammer is also a tool. In one man’s hand, it builds a house. In another man’s hand, it can take a life.
The Duality of Social Media
While social media might not directly bash in any skulls, I have often wondered about another problem it presents. In the past year or two especially, I have noticed a complete lack of empathy on social media. People turn other people’s pain into funny memes and then hit you back with, “Relax! It’s just Twitter!” if you call them out on it.
Yet, we can always go back to that bright side of social media, too. So many people have used this medium to raise awareness about issues all around the world. People on social media, especially Twitter, often know more about what’s happening on the other side of the planet than people who read and watch the news.
Still, it doesn’t negate the fact that some people use social media for no better reason than to troll others and be world-class a-holes parading as comedians.
What Causes Lack of Empathy on Social Media?
Social media and how people use it differs on an individual basis. Each person has their own unique experience on social media as well. This is based on the people and hashtags they choose to follow. Still, there are a few factors that apply.
1. Compassion Fatigue
Strangely enough, one of the reasons people begin to lose empathy on social media is because they have already spent as much of it as they are capable of. One article published by the University of Rochester proposes that after seeing one tragic story too many, people no longer feel moved to put themselves in anyone else’s shoes. In fact, this became a problem long before social media became “a thing”. You can find pieces on this as far back as 1999, and back then, people blamed the news.
2. Confirmation Bias
Adults like to see themselves as mature, but maturity occurs on a continuum and some people peak early. Simply put, there are still many adults suffering from teenage social problems and social media amplifies this. People on social media have their own “in-group” and “out-group”. They tend to find it easy to empathize with those who fall within their own social group. These people agree with them and share their own values. They then put up a brick wall against those who fall outside of that social circle.
Over the years, the stereotype of the troll in his mother’s basement has prevailed and holds true in many instances. Still, one New York Times article points out that anyone can enjoy that same level of anonymity online and some use it to become a bully. This anonymity allows people already drawn to the idea of bullying to type out insults with ease that they might struggle to say to someone’s face.
4. Missing Neurological Keys
What’s interesting is that this feeling of anonymity holds true even when people use their real names and profile pictures. Social scientists explain this by pointing out that when people communicate remotely, they miss out on the facial expressions and immediate reactions that otherwise help to keep poor behavior in line. One CNN article also addressed this and pointed out that young people’s growing inability to maintain eye contact or notice subtle nonverbal cues were signs of dying empathy.
Social media also perpetuates a strong focus on the self. Men post shirtless photos on Instagram. Women post selfie videos on Snapchat that are 30 seconds long, just making faces at the camera. There have been several studies on how social media breeds grandiose narcissism in people of all ages. Social scientists identify a lack of compassion and empathy for others as one of the key determining factors when identifying narcissists.
How Does Social Media Help To Build Empathy?
Social media has certainly brought out the narcissism and general a$$holery in a lot of people, but this is not always the case. I did, after all, propose that social media is actually a good thing. And, if it’s good, then it must contribute something to building empathy — for some people.
1. Global Awareness
First Worlders are born with a proverbial spoon in their mouths compared to people in other countries. Even if you’re homeless in America, there are more social services available to you than there are for working people in a lot of underdeveloped countries. Social media is that reminder First Worlders need. It opens people’s eyes to the realities present in other countries and cultures without the $2,000 plane ticket and the commitment to volunteer.
The University of Rochester identifies crowdfunding as another way social media can build empathy. I added it here, because who am I to argue with a university? But, I plan to argue anyway. Crowdfunding is a way of expressing empathy, but I don’t believe it builds it. There are a lot of people in the world who would rather throw coins at problems than invest time and real effort for free. That said, the everyday person does have to care about someone else’s problems at least a little, to contribute towards it.
3. First-Person POV Content
I often get comments from friends and readers that they live vicariously through me on my blog. I might have taken chances they only dreamed of in their youth or that they are working up the courage to follow through with now. This level of bonding with another person’s trials and triumphs (instead of becoming jealous or resentful!) requires empathy. When people get drawn into first-person POV content online through blogs and vlogs, it helps to build that.
4. Surprising Discoveries
Many of the non-Jamaicans who have been following my blog for some time often find that there are Jamaican idiosyncracies that you can hold on to. These are things that you also say, do, understand or believe. Your version might be a little different, but you were probably surprised to find it existing in another culture at all. These surprising discoveries of shared values are what often bridge the gap between diverse social circles and different cultures. Even for people who suffer from confirmation bias and the need to pander to the “in-group,” it can begin to widen who fits into that circle.
What Separates One Camp From the Other?
Several studies have shown that humans use social media to learn new social behaviors. This is where they try out dark comedy and “coarse jokes” before they take it out into public spaces. Modeling social behaviors online is especially common among young people but adults are not immune to this type of behavior.
So, what is it that separates those who lose empathy on social media to those who increase it? None of the studies I found addressed this directly, so I’ll draw my own conclusion based on the information they provided coupled with my own observation.
I find that cause-focused people tend to show the greatest levels of empathy. I specifically use the term “show” because they may not feel empathy in the traditional sense you might expect. After all, like everyone else, they are burned out by the continual onslaught of genuine “sob stories” online. However, their objective focus on supporting causes puts up a buffer against that exhaustion.
Note that when I saw cause-focused people, I don’t mean people who choose one or two causes that directly benefit them and stick to it. I mean the people who support the rights and freedoms of others even when it has nothing to do with them and offers zero direct benefits to their personal lives. These people support other people’s rights and freedoms even when it contradicts their own preferences or beliefs.
I mean the woman with 10 kids who believes other women should have the right to have none. The straight male who participates in the LGBTQ parade because people should be free to love who they want to love. The US-born American citizens who protest outside modern-day Mexican concentration camps and believe these newcomers that they have never met deserve better treatment regardless of how they got here.
What Are the Effects on Everyday Life?
If it seems like I have singled out the alleged libtards, you are only partially correct. There are many liberal people out there who support values for their own ends. These are not the people I believe are most prone to empathy online or in their everyday lives. A cause that benefits you is still self-serving, no matter who else it benefits along the way.
Even so, putting an ideal before human emotions and realities certainly seems like the forte of the true conservatives, in my book. The old White men who say women should keep a rape child because it is God’s will. The racist African-American group I shall not name who believes that foreign-born Blacks have no place in American society and should — ironically enough — go back to our respective countries.
These people certainly feel empathy towards others that share their values. However, if you go by the research used throughout this article, when people share alleged empathy towards other members of their own “in-group,” this is not true empathy. It is self-serving because it feeds their own interests and feeds that confirmation bias.
It’s also worth noting that empathy on a whole is on the decline. Several studies have shown that this is especially a problem in America: the country with the big blockbuster movies, largest publications and most social media accounts online. Is it any wonder that so many other cultures have begun to absorb this problem? Or worse, give the U.S. a run for its money in this domain?
How Can We Build Empathy on Social Media?
I don’t believe there is any one-size-fits-all solution for the worldwide decline in empathy. I do know that the people who block politics, social issues and the news from their timeline aren’t helping the problem. Again, as the studies have shown, people don’t build empathy through exclusion.
That said, I do think it’s important to focus on more than just the negative. There are enough causes in the world to drain bank accounts and personal energy alike. Fill your timeline with good things too. Feeling genuine happiness for others as they progress through life is as important to building empathy as sharing the pains of others.
- University of Rochester: Social Media and Our Growing Empathic Abilities
- University of Rochester: The Damage Social Media Does on Empathy
- American Psychological Association: Narcissism and social media use: A meta-analytic review.
- The New York Times: Found on Facebook: Empathy
- Live Science: Is Technology Destroying Empathy? (Op-Ed)
- The Washington Post: Empathy is on the decline in this country. A new book describes what we can do to bring it back.
- NBC Better: How to identify a narcissist — and cope with their potentially toxic behavior
- CNN: Is the internet killing empathy?
- Street Roots News: How technology is harming our ability to feel empathy