Think the internet is deepening our perceived social isolation, increasing envy and amplifying feelings of disconnection?
Well, yeah, maybe—especially if you spend most of your time on social media—according to this 2017 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. And given the growing body of research on the higher rates of morbidity and disease associated with social isolation, we ignore these reports to our own peril.
But the internet also has the capacity to connect kindred spirits across the oceans, create community and cultivate empathy. You just need to know where to look.
What Is Empathy?
Surprisingly, many of us aren’t clear on what empathy really is. I love Brené Brown’s simple explanation:
As Brown states, “empathy fuels connection; sympathy drives disconnection.” She outlines the four qualities of empathy nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman discovered in her research:
- avoiding judgment
- recognizing emotion in others
- communicating that emotion
Teaching Digital Empathy
One textbook, Developing Digital Empathy, provides tools for teaching digital empathy, which author Yonty Friesem says involves:
- empathy accuracy: the ability to assess another’s internal state;
- self-empathy: possessing a sense of identity and agency;
- cognitive empathy: recognizing, understanding and predicting others’ thoughts and emotions;
- affective empathy: feeling what others feel;
- imaginative empathy: role-playing; and
- empathic concern: being compassionate toward others.
The article Developing Empathy in the Digital Age further explores how educators can strengthen students’ empathy. Arguing that technology cannot create the conditions (e.g., eye contact, conversation, vulnerability) required to develop such skills, Matthew S. Howell thinks reducing time spent on screens is a step toward reclaiming our humanity. With the average person staring at a screen for 10.5 hours a day—and research indicating digital stimulation can cause damage to the part of the brain (insula) related to developing empathy—instituting practices like Screen-Free Fridays at schools can help students rediscover face-to-face connections. How could you carry this over to your workplace?
Counteracting Negativity with Positivity
This GoodThink article on spreading positivity online suggests we can counteract the destructive patterns of cyberbullying and negativity through such simple acts as watching videos by and positively rating valuable content. When we reward the creators of constructive content instead of getting sucked into gossipy, cruel feedback loops, we are magnifying the impact of those positive messages and diminishing that of the negative ones.
In “Empathy and Vulnerability in the Digital Age,” Richard Raber writes eloquently about the power of the internet to simultaneously propagate voyeurism and identification, judgmentalism and understanding, pity and empathy—suggesting we can harness technology to support “meaningful action and empathic construction … if we can find ways of binding together our fractured sense of self and community instead of allowing social media and the internet to splinter us.”
Digital Tools for Strengthening Empathy
So how can we foster community, deepen our sense of connection and stimulate empathy in this digital age? By storytelling, witnessing, listening.
Here are eight tools to help with that journey:
- The Moth: Listen to ordinary individuals share funny, educational and poignant stories like this one that will influence the way you see others and stay with you for years.
- Storycorps: Watch animations of audio recordings by people sharing pivotal moments in their lives like how this man reacted to being robbed at knifepoint.
- School of Life: Explore fascinating topics such as philosophy, love, psychotherapy, political theory and emotional intelligence through aesthetically compelling, thoughtful videos like The Meaning of Life – in 60 Seconds.
- SoulPancake: This more lighthearted channel approaches topics ranging from dating to biases to forgiveness to kitten therapy with humor and compassion.
- Cut: Along the same lines as SoulPancake, this channel deals with the humorous to the profound, like this video of parents explaining suicide to their children.
- Humans of New York: View photos and learn the moving stories of individuals living on the streets of New York City.
- Seize Your Moments: If you’re tired of being bombarded by cynical news about the worst of humanity, take a moment to refresh with these inspirational stories from around the world.
- The Good Cards: Instead of going on a meaningless goose chase for Pokémon Go, try a game that encourages you to practice a good deed, one card at a time.
What are your favorite ways to cultivate empathy in the digital age? We’d love to hear your ideas.