How Empathy Has Changed In The Face Of Tech
As tech takes over our lives, a journalist reckons with what has happened to our ability to empathize.
The following is an excerpt from The Future of Feeling: Building Empathy in a Tech-Obsessed World by Kaitlin Ugolick Phillips.
The Future of Feeling: Building Empathy in a Tech-Obsessed World
We obviously don’t have self-reported empathy scores from everyone who regularly uses social or immersive technology, but it’s hard to deny that there are few better places to see “need for approval” on display than the platforms that keep people coming back for more “likes” and “shares.” This is the trait that products like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter are built to exploit; every little notification and validation is like a small neurological treat, literally releasing dopamine, the “reward” chemical. Social technology is ostensibly about connecting people, but it doesn’t often foster the empathy that’s needed for real human connection. This problem is hard to quantify, but it’s showing up in homes, offices, and classrooms around the country.
Every fifth-grader in Morgan Stumbras’s Chicago classroom in 2017 had a cell phone. Actually, many of them had more than one. The devices were disruptive—especially when students used an app called Musical.ly, which allowed them to create and share short music videos starring themselves. “The bane of my existence,” Stumbras told me. But it was something else that really bothered her: even though they were constantly sending messages back and forth, none of these kids seemed to know how to talk to one another.
Technically they were communicating all the time—they just weren’t really saying anything. Whether it was through Musical.ly, the photo-and-video-sharing app Snapchat, or text messages, they were in constant communication. But Stumbras observed that they cared less about what was said than about how many times they said it. Tools like the “streak” feature in Snapchat prioritize quantity over quality, making a game out of keeping a back-and-forth of messages going as long as possible. Not only is this annoying in the classroom, but Stumbras worries that it causes social skills to atrophy.
When I called her to learn about how she used technology in her classroom to teach “soft” skills like kindness and empathy, we ended up talking more about how her students’ tech obsessions had taken over. She told me about one day when she split the class into five groups and assigned each group the simple task of making a poster about a social-emotional concept like respect or integrity. She gave each group an hour to work and a small sheet of talking points to help spark ideas. “All they had to do was color a poster,” she said, still exasperated months later. “It’s really the most basic of all tasks.” But at the end of the exercise, only a handful of groups had finished their projects. In some groups, she said, the students just sat there and stared at each other.
I had a hard time wrapping my mind around this at first. As a millennial, I grew up during a boom in handheld digital toys and games, from the Tamagotchi to the Game Boy Color. We had plenty of things to distract us in school in the late 1990s and early 2000s, even without smartphones. But we still managed to complete group projects with only the typical amount of teenage awkwardness. The technology is different and more ubiquitous now, but could things really have changed that much for eleven-year-olds?
Shortly after my conversation with Stumbras, I visited my sister and her twin toddlers. The presence of technology in their lives hadn’t seemed that remarkable to me before—perhaps because it mirrored my own constant connection. But with Stumbras’s story fresh in my mind, I was spellbound by the dexterity of my nephews’ little fingers on their iPad screens and the way they seamlessly switched among YouTube videos. At barely two years old, they took naturally to this—as naturally as to picking up blocks or asking their mother for juice. They didn’t seem to have any problem expressing emotions or communicating (especially with one another—they are twins, after all), but I couldn’t help imagining what the world might look like for them in five or ten more years. Or, for that matter, what it might look like for me and the other adults in their lives.
According to the nonprofit Common Sense Media, kids under the age of eight spend about two hours on screens every day, which is not a huge increase from previous years. What has changed is how they experience screens—forty-eight minutes of those two hours are reported to be on mobile devices, which is three times more than in 2013. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the screen time (mostly mobile) grows exponentially as kids do. Children aged eight to ten spend an average of six hours a day in front of a screen, while those eleven to fourteen spend about nine hours in front of a screen every day.
The average adult spends about ten hours a day “consuming media,” most of the time via screens, according to Nielsen. Thanks to Apple’s Screen Time feature, I know that I spend an average of four hours per day looking at my phone alone; add to that eight or so hours of screen staring at work and one or two of TV time in the evenings, and I’m well above average for an adult, and even for a millennial (my generation actually looks at our phones less than those aged thirty-five to forty-nine).
There is not yet a clear answer as to how all of this affects our brains, let alone our capacity for empathy. But researchers have made some concerning observations. In 2010, Sara Konrath, then at the University of Michigan, analyzed the answers to seventy-two different empathy-measuring surveys given to fourteen thousand American college students across several decades. She found that as time went on, empathy among young people decreased. College students in 2010 appeared to have 40 percent less empathy than people their age had in 1979. Perspective-taking and empathic concern (acting on empathy) saw the most declines, contributing to the biggest drop in empathy during the period studied. That period—between 2000 and 2010— happened to include the advent of social technology and a boom in immersive online gaming. Konrath’s results weren’t conclusive proof that tech had stripped young people of empathy—far from it—but they triggered a deluge of clickbait headlines about sociopathic millennials.
One of the most prominent voices sounding the alarm about the connections between technology and a lack of empathy is probably Sherry Turkle, a researcher, writer, and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has compared the impact of technology on our ability to communicate and empathize with one another to environmental destruction, calling it the new “silent spring,” in reference to Rachel Carson’s movement-sparking 1962 book about the impact of pesticides. Turkle’s 2011 book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other is a veritable tome of research and analysis about how humans—especially children—interact with technology. It covers social media but also Turkle’s worries about toy robots and other machines created to augment the human experience. “We build technologies that leave us vulnerable in new ways,” she writes.
I read the book only six years after its publication, but many parts of it already seemed quaint. Turkle had been disturbed by the way children seemed to perceive Furbies—the owl-like robotic toys released in 1998 that blinked, flapped, and spoke their own language—as real living beings in many ways, and yet didn’t always treat them gently. By the time I read the book, I wasn’t sure most kids even knew what a Furby was anymore, or whether they were still available for purchase. (They are, but their popularity has decreased considerably in favor of even more-lifelike toys, like little animals that “hatch” from eggs and fur-covered cats and dogs that move and sound like the real things.)
In other ways, Turkle was prescient. She warned of the philosophical and moral dangers of building robots that are just “alive enough,” and what our desire to do so might say about how technology has already warped our sense of humanity.
“Philosophers say that our capacity to put ourselves in the place of the other is essential to being human,” she writes. “Perhaps when people lose this ability, robots seem appropriate company because they share this incapacity.”
To illustrate this point, Turkle cites a 2004 study that found Americans had become increasingly lonely over the preceding two decades, with nearly a quarter of people saying they had no one in their lives to talk to about important issues. In more recent research, psychologist Sara Konrath has also noted that Americans report being more isolated; the percentage who live alone has nearly doubled in recent years. Young people, Konrath wrote in a 2018 Psychology Today column, “may be more socially isolated in recent years, but are paradoxically becoming less lonely.” That, she hypothesized, is because they are constantly plugged in to social media, which has been shown to alleviate loneliness in the short term but has uncertain effects in the long term.
Excerpted from The Future of Feeling: Building Empathy in a Tech-Obsessed World. © 2020 Published by Little A, February 1, 2020. All Rights Reserved.
Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips is a health and technology journalist and author of The Future of Feeling: Building Empathy in a Tech-Obsessed World (Little A, 2020). She’s based in Durham, North Carolina.