teens and empathy

Do Today’s Tech-Obsessed Teens Have Less Empathy?


Are teens developing increasingly bad behaviors, or are parents just more aware of these issues in our society?

In the news and media, we are exposed to frightening headlines about bullying, cruel pranks, and teen suicides. We hear about “catfishing” and fake profiles. We read startling stats that highlight smartphone usage, the percentage of teens logged in to social media, and discouraging numbers regarding the prevalence of cyberbullying in our culture.

Tales of “teens gone bad” are enough to leave parents questioning our children’s behaviors, and wondering if digital technology is the cause. Are our beloved devices affecting our children’s social and emotional development— empathy in particular?

Developing Empathy In Teens

Empathy is often described as understanding the feelings and thoughts of other people. Basically, this skill set boils down to the ability of a person to relate or see a different point of view. Many people compare this emotional development with the ability to “walk in another person’s shoes.”

From the time our children are young, parents and educators try to foster emotional intelligence. We model appropriate responses, acknowledge feelings, and educate on the dangers of rude behaviors. After years of guided practice, we assume that a teen should have mastered these skills.

This inevitably leads to questions regarding a teen’s motives. Especially when they act like they are the center of the universe. In many households across the country, self-centered teen behavior is very much a reality. “Me, me, me, me, me,” is often heard in our houses, classrooms, and society.

This paradox leaves parents scratching their heads, wondering why their teen is only concerned with numero uno. A recent study uncovered that empathy is usually formed during the teen years (around 13 years for girls and 15 years for boys). This definitely explains many teens’ self-centered attitudes. But how does technology play into that?


The Role Technology Plays In Emotional Development

Social media is relatively new, making it near impossible to have a clear-cut answer on whether or not social media positively or negatively affects teens’ development. More than likely, as with most things, technology affects teens in different ways, depending on the teen’s individual physical and emotional growth.

But at the same time, experts continue to gather data that provides us with emerging insights into how a teen’s sense of empathy can potentially be affected by exposure to technology.

One argument for social media negatively effecting teens’ comes from a biological standpoint. As we mentioned early, children develop in their early teen years, but at the same time, up to 60% of the synapses in the brain disappear if they aren’t used between birth and adolescence.

With the typical child spending up to seven hours a day on entertainment media, it’s reasonable to assume that they won’t be getting the face-to-face interaction that is vital to learning how to read and express emotion.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t still communicating with their peers, but through digital devices there is a sense of disconnect when the brain isn’t able to identify and connect actions and words with emotion. For example, one study noted that children who play violent video games struggled with recognizing happiness. And, without being able to see those reactions, they could have less empathy with those who are hurt or impacted by their words.

However, there is also evidence that technology does offer our children positive emotional benefits. Teens are able to connect with their peers more easily through texting and social media, and they feel supported with a variety of networks and online friends.

Patricia Greenfield, director of the Children’s Digital Media Center and UCLA development psychologist, admits that younger people tend to enjoy the large support they receive online.

Through this network, they are also exposed to more information and are given more opportunities to “walk” in the stories and situations of other people. Technology has empowered young people to be more aware and take immediate action.  

A study from the World Vision 30 Hour Famine found these statistics regarding technology’s influence on empathy:

  • 55% of teens admit that social media allows them to be more aware of others’ needs.
  • 2 out of 3 surveyed teens feel social media’s benefits outweigh online risks.
  • 91% of the polled teens agree that volunteering locally is important.

While it’s hard to gather large-scale tangible data about increasing or decreasing emotional intelligence, we do know that technology is changing a teen’s view of intimate relationships.

Technology’s Implication On Intimacy

Children and teens learn intimacy and emotional skills from interactions and experience in social groups and settings. These relationships add depth and breadth to our self disclosure. This allows a teen to share his or her feelings, thoughts, and dreams to eventually develop empathy and emotional intelligence.

Today, a lot of young teens meet this need for support and affirmation online. Social media uses feedback with likes, shares, and comments instead of personal interaction. It has also created an intricate classifications of bonding and friendship, in which teens divide their friends into “Real-life friends vs. Facebook friends,” “Friends vs. Followers,” and more.

This doesn’t mean that technology can’t be used to promote intimacy. It has been found that experiences closer to authentic one-on-one conversation cause higher levels of connections between friends. Video chatting and phone calls offer stronger bonding than simple texting.


Looking To The Future

Our devices and reliance on social media can affect a tech-obsessed teen’s relationships and personal lack of empathy. Parents know the dangers lurking behind the screens and often stress the importance of social media etiquette.

Parents need to understand how technology can fuel traits in our children—the good and the bad. A lot of these issues could be addressed by teaching empathy and emotional intelligence at home and in the classroom.

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