May Seriously Diminish Your Empathy

I mostly shut up about my thoughts on the internet a while ago.  In part because the idea that not all was well had gone main stream and in part because I began to bore myself!

For the nth time I should point out that I work in technology and consider the internet to be both wonderful but also something we need to look very hard at to ensure it serves us for good.

Our history is littered with our obsessions with new and interesting things which, encouraged by well meaning marketing people, we thought terribly cool, but which turned out to be rather bad for us.  When we look back it is easy to ridicule our forebears for embracing cigarettes, radium toothpaste, soda with cocaine in it and my favourite, radium cigarettes.





My favourite which I stumbled on while writing this and simply could not believe:


Then there is this.  Shouldn’t they be talking to each other?


“…In 2010, a team at the University of Michigan led by the psychologist Sara Konrath put together the findings of 72 studies that were conducted over a 30-year period. They found a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students, with most of the decline taking place after 2000.”

The whole article is here:

The whole NY Times Article that comes from is here.  It is about Sherry Turkle’s latest tome, Reclaiming Conversation.  If you think this goes on a bit…

Much of that decline is attributed to our use of the internet and primarily social media.  That study was carried out on students.  Typically outgoing, bright young things.

I am wondering if Social Media (among other online things, I’ve tried to keep this short, but I could have added on line Gaming for example) is doing so much more harm than good, that we ought to either re design it (see previous tedious rambles on that) or simply turn it off.  Not as individuals, but off altogether, pull the plug.

Empathy matters, it is essential to our being human, it is essential to our humanity.  Empathy is what causes us to behave well towards each other it is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.

I have no idea what level of empathy has fallen to among young poor, uneducated, unemployed, isolated people.  I am willing to guess that it has fallen a lot further than 40%.  Every time we suffer a terrorist outrage, those factors tend to feature in the analysis of the perpetrators, as do tales of radicalisation through Social Media with its narrow perspectives, easy anonymity and lack of accountability.

The situation in Europe at present is dangerous and complicated.  The causes many, having built over centuries.  Declining empathy, arcane though it sounds, is a dangerous and destabilising accelerant though, and I suspect what is tipping the balance towards chaos.  Dewy eyed middle class concerns about ensuring that bright young things are fully rounded are a bit of a side show. The examples are many.


I suppose we could put a health warning on it.

Social Media May Seriously Diminish Your Empathy.

I doubt that will be enough.

I wonder also if we will look back with incredulity at how we allowed ourselves to embrace something that damaged our very humanity. (And yes, its good fun and I’ve learned a lot and made some new friends, blah blah blah.)

Anyway, what do you think?


21 thoughts on “May Seriously Diminish Your Empathy

  1. Love the pictures. Looking at the last couple, I was reminded of the Banksy graffiti “Mobile Lovers” which shows a couple embracing whilst looking at their mobile phones! I find this a really difficult debate. I can see and feel the benefits of the internet, but the fact that many children don’t play in the woods any more, or wander round aimlessly with their mates, or meet people face-to-face, scares me. But it is difficult to engage some people – I get tired of people thinking I am a dinosaur. Ideally we would take the good from the internet and leave the bad, but since we all have a different perception of where good and bad lies, it seems to be a lost cause. Sigh…

    • Hi

      That’s why I dared link it to very obviously bad things that are happening. The causes of those things are hugely complicated and long running, but it does seem that at least in part what is ripping us into bouts of chaos is as simple as conversations that go on without transparency, balance and challenge in an environment that diminishes our humanity.

  2. I think you raise some extremely valid points here. I’m pretty sure I could add many more (shorter attention spans, poor grammar etc) and it therefore becomes very easy to condemn such things as being terribly new and horrible and not at all like things were when we were lads / lasses.

    We’re surrounded by things that are “bad” for us (as decided by someone else usually) which is an awfully long list that includes sugar, saturated fat, alcohol, tobacco, etc and it is therefore extremely easy to jump on the puritanical bandwagon (horse-powered obvs – don’t want any of that fossil fuel nonsense) and, whilst we will end up feeling extremely proud of ourselves for living to 133, we’ll probably be thoroughly miserable for most of it since our obsession in avoiding all the nasty stuff that people seem to keep making has overtaken any common sense.

    And there, I’ve said it: common sense. Almost all of the things described in your original post, and in the list above (tobacco being an obvious exception) also have positives to them. They make us feel good, make us feel more sociable, and frankly often cheer us up. When it comes to Social Media specifically, I love it. I accept it is bad for the reasons you describe but with a good dose of common sense, it can also be a very good tool to give you positives that are almost impossible to get by other means. I have seen, and thoroughly enjoyed, seeing my friends’ new-born babies, and the comments from all their friends that invariably follow, on Facebook and I simply would never have had that without Facebook. Same for exam successes, trophies won, races run, and marriages. The immediacy and community that is created at these pivotal events among very normal and balanced human beings, who do meet face to face whenever possible as well BTW, is something that has become possible through technological advancement. And it works because they use common sense.

    So, to your point about empathy, I fundamentally disagree. Notwithstanding all of the above, you also have to factor in differences between countries (are you seriously saying this is a problem in China, who have as big a population of social media users, albeit not on Facebook ?), the fact that you change as you grow up (grumpy and uncommunicative teenager, anyone ?), and the fact that social media itself has changed nature quite dramatically in an extremely short space of time. Remember Facebook only had its tenth birthday quite recently, so to decide that it is the creation of @beelzebub, based on a statistically insignificant sample size, is a bit nuts.

    I don’t doubt that teenagers use / rely on Social Media more than we old farts think is good for them, and our default position always appears to be that they can only possibly return to normality with a good dose of Radio 4, a brisk walk and crumpet around tea time, but it simply isn’t the case. They’re normal, just not the same normal as us.

    • This post was triggered by my reading this blog, Closing The Empathy Gap (link to blog), from the Huffington Post

      It is just over a year old and refers to a documentary called Beginning With The End.
      “Beginning With the End” is a feature length documentary film that follows the experiences of a culturally diverse group of 16 to 18 year-olds who are given the unusual and extraordinary opportunity to work as trained hospice volunteers. Through their eyes and voices, viewers will witness the life-altering experiences of these young people who are themselves in the throes of many changes and transitions. Through them, we discover the seeds of a compassionate society, and come to appreciate the power of empathic teens.

      It struck me reading that sacrificing empathy was something we should not allow lightly for ourselves or our children. But as I read it, listening to Radio 4, I heard that analysis of the isolated, unemployed, vulnerable people who are often the perpetrators of horrors like the ones we saw this week. I realised the obvious, that they are often victims too. Draining empathy out of society isn’t just a little disappointing, in the way teenagers tend to be, where one generation is separate from the next. It is causing a few to behave in ways we can’t just shrug at philosophically and accept.

      • Couldn’t agree more. I’m not suggesting your point about empathy isn’t well made, simply that the causes of the decline of empathy can’t simply be laid (wholly) at the door of social media. I think there are a whole load of other factors that come into play – too many to go into without a pint in my hand at least.

        I suppose I had the luxury of, until yesterday, working in an industry where I interacted with the targets of many of these accusations so am much more familiar with the full spectrum of what they are like and how they behave. And, simply put, it’s not quite as bad as it seems from my experience.

  3. Perhaps social media may cause people to not show their empathy? After all what reaction may it attract.

    Perhaps social media encourages people to compensate and show inflated apparent empathy? Awesome! They should die! Lol!

    In reality, social media channels are not a good lens for human empathy. It narrows and distorts, even when well intended. It’s just not the full real deal. What is actually happening in our face to face lives? I detect no discernible shift or change generationally or associated with internet usage. My kids & their friends seem as empathetic (if not more openly) than me & my friends of that age. Similarly with peers and clients.

    There’s something here definitely, I’m just not sure if it’s reality or the lens on reality?

    • Hi

      In keeping this one simple I know I over simplified. There are some relationships I sustain through the internet, albeit on multiple channels. One this week that sort of lives on FB with someone in the USA but occasionally opens up in other ways is still great fun despite our never seeing each other. I have others that are pure email. One I have never met and probably never will that is still fun and interesting too.

      Making the argument a little more sophisticated, I suspect it depends on the purpose and intent as well as the medium. If we isolate the vulnerable, we can focus ill intent with bad results. Add a better purpose and be aware of the dynamics and very good things can happen. I have seen it done and continue to do so.

      Some of the down sides are truly awful at present.

      In my little way I hope we debate and learn.



  4. And still I wonder if the challenge is reality or our lens on reality…

    Another take… Perhaps the reason we are finding empathetic challenges with the progression of technology is that empathy requires certain conditions that technology channels don’t necessarily provide. To augment these we perhaps have to skillfully hold a greater sense of others to fill the void. When we don’t or can’t do this perhaps that is when we most see lack of empathy? Similarly, that lack of self awareness & even accountability leads to nastiness we wouldn’t normally expect to see in public?

    • Have you read The Medium is The Massage?
      (That’s not a typo).  

      It is an amazing book, part poem, part pop art and part text book. It was arguably resonsible for that weird outbreak of Media Studies.

      It asserts that the human brain attaches to and is modified by a medium based on the characteristics of that medium.

      The wheel is an extension of the foot, the book is an extension of the eye. Despite it being written in the 60s (67 I think, a very good year) it foresaw the challenges of attaching the brain to a computer network.

      We have many challenges around ethics, education and law which will be needed to moderate our behaviour. I think we will need to re design the media we use as well.

      Not so much an “or” argument as a long, learning “and”…

  5. As usual, Anthony, your antennae have zeroed in on an important issue. I suggest you read this:

    As the author notes, “Until A.I. engineers can encode empathy, Wordsworth’s “inward tenderness,” the rest of it—tweeting, telling knock-knock jokes, making dinner reservations, giving directions—doesn’t amount to much.”

    There is no algorithm for empathy and that’s why it’s absent from social media…

    • Ian – thanks. I’m slightly embarrassed to note that that copy of NY is on my kitchen table still in its wrapper 🙂

      The medium certainly gets in the way. I’m more, erm, assertive on conf calls than f2f.

      I’m going to have to ponder the “it can’t be done” idea. I suspect it can’t, but I bet it can be raised a bit through accountability (the restriction of anonymity to very specific circumstances), reputation and other human facets.

      I’ve just seen an article (obviously, the algorithm knows I’m interested…) that the UN and World Bank are going to give everyone in the world a digital identity. That won’t transmit empathy but it might add a dash of accountability and improve behaviour.

      I wonder if the extent each of us listen could be measured…

      It’ll still be clunky.

      What we have now is a pathetic toy, that’s for sure.

      • In its current incarnation the default online experience is predominantly dissociative or, in the words of Gertrude Stein: “There is no there there.”

        In so far as we have no one single persistent, verifiable and accountable digital identity that cannot be spoofed or assumed by another human (or a bot) in the virtual space of the interweb, true empathy (and other genuine fellow feelings) will continue to be corrupted or marginalized by an absence of trust. I’m currently sceptical of how resilient and widely applicable a trust solution blockchain really represents, but I won’t deny it is moving in the right direction.

        This is where the new frontier of digital life is currently getting carved out. But for it to become truly revolutionary, digital trust needs to become pervasively embedded in every app on every device everyhwere in the world. It’s only then that empathy might become a real part of online life.

      • I suspect Blockchain (or some compromised version of it that enables it to scale and perform) will solve the transactional dimension of trust. As to the human dimension, which you describe so very very well here, that is a huge challenge.

        Perhaps in the end our digital experience will be rendered safe, functional and occasionally fun, but reality wins. That is, as long as you can afford reality and have the education to know it is the best experience.

  6. I’m reading all these comments with an immense amount of interest, since the discussion seems to have meandered off from the original premise somewhat, or at least has extended it. I still think the core themes here, namely those of empathy, trust and fear of upcoming generations failing to adopt the qualities we regard so highly (empathy and trust to name but two) as being the fault of the internetweb, are largely under explored. In fact, I’d go as far as to say there probably IS no answer to any of this and it all very much depends on our (largely adult) perceptions of what we think is correct. These views and values have clearly been defined and shaped by our own experiences growing up, and the values prescribed by our parents.

    What concerns me in all this is still this abject fear of things internetty (#madeupwordalert). Within the dialogue above there are claims of how it is ruining a load of stuff and how we should fight to return to a life like it was before Netscape came along. I think this is not only untrue, but it is dangerous too. In my opinion, equally as dangerous as the dangers you are so fearful of in losing empathy, being wedded to devices, not talking to one another etc.

    We’re living through a rather odd – some may say paradoxical – period in history where there has been a massive shift in adoption of technology, particularly with younger generations, over a very short space of time. And in that time there has been observed behaviours that some of us can’t identify with ergo they must be bad. It’s simply too soon to say how all of this is going to turn out but we should not lose sight of all the good that the internet and technology are doing in the world and not simply focus on all the bad. Sure, I am the first to be concerned about identity theft, phishing, cyber-bullying and such like, but I am also invigorated by global communities that never existed before, by access to information I could never have dreamed was possible (see your previous post on Digital Butlers for more on this one), and by having the ability to do precisely what we’re all doing right now, that is having a very engaging debate online. OK, OK, we could have met in the pub and done this but I’m guessing many of us don’t live close together so in reality that wouldn’t ever happen.

    So don’t you find it strange that here we are, debating the values and concerns of “online”, while at the same time actually being extremely authentic and empathic, using the very medium we’re all getting jumpy about ?

    • I’m never a fan of counsels of despair or even the, “we are where we are”, view.

      That we have this debate online is telling. You are right, it would be very difficult otherwise and be dependent on hand written notes and possibly the need to jostle with outraged of Tunbridge Wells. Equally, even if we could get a word in, the whole thing would take weeks and at my age I’d forget what I was going to say. That we are having it tells me that we value this new medium hugely, not that we want to go backwards, but make sure it evolves to serve us.

      My original example was a very narrow one about the use of SM (but in that broad category I include messaging and email) in the process of radicalising people. It’s certainly not the only cause, not by a long way. But it helps, certainly as designed.

      I’m also mostly not referring to anyone of any given generation. The pace of change has been so rapid it has swept us all up. The generation blah thing is misleading, the brain is plastic, even for people of our age.

      I’m sure the first printing press was a bit ropey. In these still early days of the Internet age, it’s a clunky toy and still needs a lot of work.

  7. Reblogged this on Joining The Dots and commented:

    Having deleted my Facebook account earlier this year, I also deleted my Twitter account last week.

    That first step was a long time intent, I had grudgingly kept FB for a year while I was involved in my cycling adventure last year. The Cambridge Analytica story gave me a reminder. I’ve not missed it.

    I’ve watched the divisive and abusive fallout from Trump and Brexit on Twitter. That division was to some extent sown and those results influenced by the effects social media have on us. They are far from the sole cause, but in tight results, decisive ones.

    Then I finally read Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Nowby Jaron Lanier which has been on my silly pile of unread books for a few months.

    It could be shorter, some elements are sloppy, but overall it is devastating.

    To summarise, it is the objective of the business model to change our behaviour, as a by product we become irrational, isolated, rude and otherwise a lot less well connected, empathetic and human.

    It is causing us to do stupid things and making us unhappy.

    There are some positives, I have learned a lot and made a few new friends.

    On balance there is no contest.

    Hence I deleted my Twitter account. I am already more happy and suddenly my diary is full of social meetings with people I’d not quite for round to seeing for a few years.

    Funny that.

    Anyway, a reprise from early ramblings on this :

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