Empathy is the basis of our capacity for parent-child bonding as well as cooperation with group members in ways that move societies forward.

For example, adolescents with higher empathy become adults with better social skills, higher civic engagement, and greater prosocial skills like helping. Additionally, countries with higher empathy have higher levels of collectivism, subjective well-being, pro-social behaviors, and U.S. states with higher empathy have reduced violent crime.

So there is good reason for mounting concerns that empathy is decreasing among adolescents and young adults while narcissism is on the rise, and fears that social media use may be playing a role in this trend.

In fact, in 2009, a neuroscience group led by corresponding author Antonio Damasio found that emotions linked to our moral sense are evoked slowly in the mind, and suggested that speed of digital media culture may complicate the development of these emotions, which brain imaging shows to be deeply rooted in the body.

“Damasio’s study has extraordinary implications for the human perception of events in a digital communication environment. Lasting compassion in relationship to psychological suffering requires a level of persistent, emotional attention,”

says University of Southern California Annenberg media scholar Manuel Castells.

Cultivating Empathy

The current research[1] was a small meta-analysis of 5 studies involving a total of 3,345 participants.

Overall, contrary to public perception, social networking use was found to be positively related to both affective empathy (the ability to share in the emotions of others) and cognitive empathy (the ability to understand the emotions of others).

Even though decreases in empathy have been connected with increases in media use at a societal level[2], individual social media use - in particular, frequentness or hours spent per day - appears to be related to higher levels of empathy, especially affective empathy. Some online behaviors may cultivate empathy (such as sharing emotions, or expressing support) to a greater extent than others (updating profile photos).

It should be noted that these results are correlational and do not show causality. It is also important to mention that all of the studies included (and much of media research in general), have been conducted in industrialized, individualistic countries like the United States.

There is corroborating longitudinal evidence showing social media use at one time point is predictive of higher levels of cognitive and affective empathy one year later among adolescents. Other experimental work shows that interdependent Facebook use can promote relational orientation.

[1] Shu-Sha Angie Guan, Sophia Hain, Jennifer Cabrera, Andrea Rodarte. Social Media Use and Empathy: A Mini Meta-Analysis. Social Networking, 8, 147-157. doi: 10.4236/sn.2019.84010

[2] Konrath, S. (2012) The Empathy Paradox: Increasing Disconnection in the Age of Increasing Connection. In: Luppicini, R., Ed., Handbook of Research on Technoself: Identify in a Technological Society, IGI Global, Hershey, 204-228

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