Day by day, we have more and more ability through technology to stay connected, even globally. But day by 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.
These are not the marks of a genuinely interconnected society. But, we say, we’re so connected! Or are we? 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.
The illusion of connection
Social media gives us the illusion of connection—but at the same time, we have fewer in-person encounters. 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, 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 used to be shaped by parents, grandparents, and teachers. Now that role is filled by digital algorithms that choose what children see—algorithms that have no morality, no values, no filters other than popularity. Combine those algorithms with parents’ lack of time to spend with their children and teens, and you see many of them floundering or turning to peers for support. And 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 real interconnectivity.
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 understanding of that person’s feelings
Empathy creates genuine connection. With empathy, there is a resonance between people, a bridge of understanding that strengthens trust.
Do your relationships lack empathy?
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 our age. The instant gratification of social media leads us away from the work required for real and meaningful relationships. Why?
Relationships are unpredictable. They often involve emotional upsets, conflicts, and differences. So we can often choose the easy way: social media and its endless opportunities for “friendship.”
Social media is efficient. Real relationships are not efficient, yet the social bonds are critical, rewarding, and meaningful. The digital world is indifferent to you personally. It creates very little relevant meaning in relationships.
Social media is easy, instant, stimulating, gratifying, like a game of solitaire. Real relationships require work and an investment of caring and time. Going online doesn't require making an effort to understand others. After all, you can find plenty of people online who agree with your opinions and don’t require you to stretch and grow.
Social media is always available, 24/7. There's always someone or something there to interact with. In real life, people have multiple responsibilities. People are not always available and responsive, even though they may care very much about you. There’s always someone to talk to online so you’re not disappointed.
If you’re online and you or someone else does something hurtful, they often don’t face any consequences. In real life, people can hurt us and we can hurt them. There are consequences to our actions in relationships. If we care about the person, a repair or at least a conversation is necessary. Online, we can just click a button and switch to a different channel. When texting, just don't answer.
Technology has caused us to become addicted to instant gratification and constant stimulation. Real relationships don’t offer instant gratification and constant stimulation. Instead, they demand empathy. Feeling understood is a basic human need. Instant gratification and constant stimulation are not basic human needs. They are learned needs, like the need for a drug or alcohol.
Which brings us back to empathy. To develop a capacity for empathy, we need to first accept and empathize with our own emotions. Next we can connect, help, and support one another. And for this reason, empathy is crucial for our interconnectivity.
Related reading: The Three Kind: Emotional, Cognitive, and Compassionate
So 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—instead of social media. 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.
And 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.