Empathy and Digital Citizenship

the word empathy

From Flickr by marleneangeja

I feel like sounding an alarm bell on this one.  Our collective capacity for empathy seems to be diminishing and the evidence is mounting.  Consider the recent Vancouver story of a brutal rape that was photographed  by a bystanding teen and shared on Facebook. What was he thinking?  Or was he? Clearly, the lack of empathy he displayed is shocking.  What’s equally disturbing is the rate at which empathy seems to be declining among young people.  Dr. Sarah Konrath (University of Michigan), recently presented a study of empathy among nearly 14,000 college students in the U.S. which found that students are much less empathic than they were 30 years ago:  40% less on some measures and in rapid decline since 2000.  The study has since been reported in the New York Times and the Globe and Mail.

As expected, there is speculation that social media is at least partly to blame – given that it makes it easy for us to disengage with  or tune people out when we feel like it – without the same level of social consequence as there might be if you did the same thing in person. This seems like an easy out and a gross simplification of the problem – which, I suspect, has many roots.  What scarier to me is that we, as a society, may have a tendency to slip into a collective coma and just avoid the challenge that faces us in turning this around.

Here are some of the opportunities we have to shift this:

I feel that we should consider including empathy in our list of 21st century skills as a distinct category. Goleman’s (1995) research suggests that empathy is positively related to intrinsic motivation and effective problem-solving. The need for empathy is increasingly important in the workplace where teamwork and social competencies are a critical factor in success.

  • spend time with the young people in our lives and get to know about theirs.  How do they feel about some of the stories they hear in the news (like the one I mentioned earlier in this post)?  How are they and their friends showing that they care about each other when something bad happens to one of them? How are they using social media and what do they share about each other?

And,  since empathy needs to be practiced in order to develop, it needs to be practiced everywhere, including the online spaces we occupy.  Maybe we need to expand the concept of digital citizenship and some of the work on the nine elements to include empathy in digital spaces – what does that look like? What’s important about taking the perspective of the other before you press upload or send?  How will you defend your choices to share information about someone else?

In our recent discussions with student teachers as part of our Digital Tattoo project, we know that the concept of digital citizenship is new to them and they are not entirely sure that they have a responsibility to teach this – nor are they sure that parents support it.  The teaching of empathy has a longer standing tradition in the public school system – maybe we need a way to bring the two together?


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