Every day, we have more and more ability through technology to stay connected no matter where we live in the world. But each day, many of us lack empathy in our lives and feel more and more alone.
It’s counterintuitive—but the statistics don’t lie. Divorce rates are high and depression is rampant. Among teens, the more screen time they report, the higher their rate of depression. Suicide rates in all age groups are up. Every 12 minutes, someone in the US commits suicide. Tragic. These are not the marks of a genuinely interconnected society.
Many say that we’re more connected than ever... Are we?
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
Time to reassess our interactions and why so many people feel a sense of loneliness even though technology has made it easier than ever to communicate.
Let’s take a closer look at what’s really going on in our society—and especially at how our children and teens are affected.
Is Technology Destroying Empathy?
Social media and the ease of technology give us the illusion of connection—but at the same time, we have fewer in-person encounters. The pandemic increased this disconnection substantially. We know that face-to-face interactions are critical in building healthy relationships and cultivating emotional intelligence during the developmental years—but this personal connection has sharply decreased in Generation Z (those born between 1994 and 2004). These are members of a generation that grew up on smartphones, gaming, surfing the net, and learning new things from YouTube. So what's the downside?
A study titled, "The Social Cognitive Effects of Digital Technology on Teenagers" states:
"One striking negative effect of digital technology consumption is how it diminishes our capacity for empathy by limiting how much people engage with one another. The addictive qualities associated with digital consumption and cyber usage is gaining prominence as a serious concern." (emphasis mine)
The values of the next generation were previously shaped by parents, grandparents, and teachers. Today that mentoring role is filled by digital algorithms that choose what children see—algorithms that have no morality, no values, no filters other than popularity.
Popularity is determined by how many likes you get on social media platforms. Combine those algorithms with parents’ lack of time to spend with their children and teens, and you see many teenagers floundering or turning to peers for support. As for parental monitoring—how can a parent monitor children’s use of the instantly disappearing photos on Snapchat?
So as our “connectedness” goes up, our capacity for empathy goes down, and so does our heart-felt interconnectivity. A lack of empathy and compassion creates an object-centric society void of true connection.
Symptoms of a Lack of Empathy
What are the symptoms of a lack of empathy? Just as you know when food has spoiled, there are certain characteristics of a person lacking empathy. Here are the most common traits:
- Unable to truly listen, but may pretend to listen
- Minimizes or dismisses others' perspectives and experiences
- Feeling stuffers are used regularly
- Lack of awareness of others' emotions
- Unable to interpret expressions and body language
- Insensitive to the needs of others
- Gets frustrated with others easily
- Can have difficulty connecting in relationships
- Critical and demanding of others
- Inordinately self-absorbed
The Numbing Effects of Social Media: Empathy IS the Solution!
Social media demands very little of us—no social intelligence, no emotional intelligence, no meaningful connections. It often even lacks social conscience. It’s very easy for anyone to fall into an addiction to technology, whatever their age.
The instant gratification of social media leads us away from the uncomfortability required for real and meaningful relationships, first with ourselves and then with each other. Why?
Below are common reasons technology and social media can hinder empathy and our connection to each other.
Relationships are unpredictable.
Connected relationships often involve emotional upsets, conflicts, and differences. Our kids need us when it's inconvenient. Our spouse's car breaks down and they need a ride. Our neighbor's car won't start and asks us to help jump the car battery. Our parents are elderly and need us to help.
Instead, social media is predictable; there's always something to read or post. It's easier and much more entertaining to turn to social media with its endless opportunities for “friendship,” "likes," and funny TikTok videos than to make loving effort in a relationship.
Real relationships are inefficient.
Social media is efficient and fast. We get likes and make connections that appear to give value. However, the digital world is indifferent to you personally. It creates very little relevant meaning in relationships unless the real relationships are nurtured. Our social bonds are critical, rewarding, and meaningful but are inefficient and at times troublesome and require empathy.
Real relationships require work and investment of caring and time.
Social media is easy, instant, stimulating, and gratifying, like a game of mindless solitaire. Going online doesn't require making an effort to understand others. It doesn't require us to be uncomfortable or present with another person's emotions. Even though someone may disagree with you on social media; all you have to do is unfriend them! It's much more challenging to have a loved one adamantly disagree with you face-to-face and be able to truly listen, find common ground, and have an intelligent conversation.
After all, you can find plenty of people online who agree with your opinions and don’t require you to stretch and grow.
In real life, people are not always available.
In real life, people have multiple responsibilities, therefore, people are not always responsive, even though they may care very much about you. Social media is always available, 24/7. There's always someone or something there to interact with. There’s always someone to talk to online so you’re not disappointed.
In real life, there are consequences and feedback when people hurt us or we hurt them.
If we care about the person, a resolution, repair, or at least a conversation is necessary.
If you’re online and you or someone else does something hurtful, they often don’t face any consequences. Take cyberbullying, for example. A bully doesn't have the benefit of seeing the devastating consequences of their actions.
Online, we can just click a button and switch to a different channel. When texting, just ghost the person and don't answer.
It's much more difficult to shun a loved one living in the same house or a co-worker you see every day! These relationships provide feedback on how our words and actions affect others for better or worse.
Real relationships often don't offer instant gratification or constant stimulation.
Instead, healthy relationships demand quality time, sincere listening, and empathy. Feeling understood is a basic human need. Technology has caused us to become addicted to instant gratification and constant stimulation. However, they are NOT basic human needs. They are learned needs, like the need for a drug or alcohol.
This tech convenience brings us back to the need for empathy. To develop a capacity for sensing and understanding another's feelings, we need to experience our impact on others. A screen cannot give us these.
Emotional literacy is a prerequisite to tuning into the feelings of others.
We need to pause, accept, and acknowledge our own emotions before we can be present to others.
Related reading: "The Three Kinds of Empathy: Emotional, Cognitive, and Compassionate."
What Does Empathy Mean, Anyway!?
Empathy is the ability to truly be present. It's the ability to hold a safe space for others to feel their own emotions completely and to be able to understand their experience so they can take effective action to return to a place of peace.
- to be able to see the world as others see it
- to be nonjudgmental
- to understand another's feelings
- to communicate an understanding of that person’s feelings
Compassionate empathy creates genuine connection and jumpstarts actions of caring and support. With empathy, there is a resonance between people, a bridge of understanding that strengthens trust.
Is a Lack of Empathy Destroying Our Interconnectivity?
In a word, yes.
Empathy is a vital key if we hope to build bridges with others, bridges between our differences.
Empathy is the healing salve and binding glue. It calms and nurtures. Without it, our relationships and our communities suffer.
Let’s take a step back and choose the high road of meaningful connections—real relationships!
Seek to understand others. When we express care for one another no matter our differences, we build strong bridges that will be the beginning of healing and greater unity for all. Connection with others allows us to connect, help, and support one another. Empathy is crucial for our interconnectivity.
Then, the use of social media and other technologies will support that real human connection, not detract from meaningful relationships or act as a substitute for them.
Social media is not the problem. Our choices create the outcome.
Choose the high road.