Studies Show a 40% Decline in Empathy Among College Students

Kids These Days

A lot of conversations about Millennials and Gen-Zs focus on the concern that we’re less connected, less able to build relationships. The concern isn’t unfounded; a 2010 University of Michigan study by Sara. H Konrath found a that empathy among college students had declined 40% between the 1970s and the 2000s. Notably, most of the decline was seen after 2000, as online messaging platforms, chat rooms, and eventually social media emerged. Social media can drive us apart as easily as it connects us, and our focus and patience are diminishing. We want to do as much as possible at the same time, and access everything on-demand. So, how can we build empathy if we can’t have a conversation where we pay attention? Can we build relationships when we’re doing so many things at once?

Our Attention is Divided

It turns out that all of us are multitasking; it’s not just when we’re working, and it’s not just young people. A Pew study found that 76% of cell phone owners rarely or never turn off their cell phone, staying constantly reachable. The same study found that 89% of cell phone owners had used their phone during their last social engagement. Professor Sherry Turkle of MIT talked to college students to learn about the effect this has on conversation, and discovered the “rule of three”: If 5 or 6 people are having a conversation, you make sure that at least 3 other people have their head up and are engaging in the conversation before you check your phone. People have developed strategies to move between the in-person and the online, but they aren’t always happy about the need to do so; in fact, Pew reported that 82% of adults felt that the way they used their phone in social settings hurt the conversation. Social interactions are a critical way that we learn about others and expand our perspectives, and sometimes technology is getting in the way.

Turkle points out that we’re “used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation - at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable.” While being connected is important, the types of conversations that we have are different. “It’s not only that we turn away from talking face to face to chat online. It’s that we don’t allow these conversations to happen in the first place because we keep our phones in the landscape” says Turkle.

Technology Is Decreasing Some Types of Connection

Access to technology and social media means that we can see world events literally from the perspective of individuals experiencing them. It’s a powerful way for people to step into each other’s shoes and practice empathy. The ability to widely share events and experiences is now accessible to almost anyone, from 7 year old Bana Alabed tweeting about her experience living through bombing in Aleppo to Eril Errson livestreaming her protest of the deportation of an asylum seeker from Sweden. We are able to connect with people around the world and learn about their experiences, in real time.

At the same time, research is discovering challenges that can come from these tools. It often shows up in simple ways, like keeping your cellphone on the table while you’re having a conversation with a friend. Some studies of conversation between two people have found that “the mere presence of a phone on a table between them or in the periphery of their vision changes both what they talk about and the degree of connection they feel.” The conversation sticks to safer, lighter topics where people don’t worry about being interrupted. Taking the phone off the table can change the whole course of the conversation and the relationship. These conversations, where it should be easy to build connections, are being disrupted by the distraction of the hundreds or thousand of connections we have to people online.

What does this do to your brain?

People are starting to use technology at younger and younger ages. Teachers at middle schools are seeing differences in the way that students do, or don’t show empathy for each other.

“Twelve-year-olds play on the playground like 8-year-olds. The way they exclude one another is the way 8-year-olds would play. They don’t seem to be able to put themselves in the place of other children.”

- Dean of a private Middle School

While this sounds very clearly bad, the data about this isn’t quite as clear. A Dutch study of 10-14 year olds found that their use of social media was not actually damaging their empathy, but improving it. The study suggests that social media may be helpful for kids in this age group by observing interactions and feedback from peers, and allowing them to practice skills related to social competence.

What about college students?

When the class of 2018 started school, they were coming into classrooms that already had SmartBoards, laptops, and smartphones. They came of age online, and studies are showing that this is changing the way that these students behave. Sarah Conrath and a team at University of Michigan reviewed data samples from 94 studies of undergraduate students between 1988 and 2011. The studies showed that during that time period, there was a 40% decline in empathy among college students. This aligns with the fact that Howard Gardner and Katie Davis call current college students members of the “app generation”, and this affects the way that they have conversations and build relationships. Technology and apps are designed to respond quickly, and they respond to actions in a predictable way. People, on the other hand, don’t always respond predictably or quickly, especially in person, so it can be easier to take those interactions online.

On the flip side, some of the positive accepted behaviours online are not as accepted in person. The anonymity of some online spaces can make it easier for people to present a more true version of themselves than they might in the real world, or self-disclose information about challenges or difficult situations. This reflecting in public can be a powerful tool to get support from others, and allows people to build an understanding of the experience of others. But if we’re all reflecting in public more, we’re also spending less time reflecting alone.

Can we even be on our own?

We typically think that empathy is built when we spend time with other people, but time alone for reflection is also critical to building empathy, and we’re doing less of that than ever before. “We turn time alone into a problem that needs to be solved by technology,” says Sherry Turkle, and we’re finding lots of solutions to this “problem”. In fact, a University of Virginia study found that college students have a hard time thinking in enjoyable ways when left alone in an empty room with no cell phone. In fact, they found that students would rather voluntarily give themselves a light electric shock than just sit and think. The time to reflect alone helps us build skills like concentration and imagination, which are skills that help us be fully present in a conversation.

“When we are secure in ourselves, we are able to really hear what other people have to say.”

- Sherry Turkle

By taking less time to reflect on our own feelings and experiences, we lose an opportunity for self-awareness and recognition of our own emotions and reactions. If we don’t take time to see them in ourselves, we may have difficulty seeing them in others.

Reclaim conversation and reflection

So if the bad news is that the impact of technology on empathy is happening early, the good news is that it isn’t universally bad, and it doesn’t take much to counteract the negative effects. A 2014 UCLA study of 11-13 year olds found that after just 5 days at an outdoor camp with no devices, the campers were able to read facial expressions and emotions significantly better. This may have been a study of kids, but there are device-free spaces and retreats popping up for adults as well. As a college junior pointed out, the connections that we have through our devices aren’t inherently bad. “Our texts are fine, it’s what texting does to our conversations when we are together that’s the problem.”

So what can we do?

The conversation around the impact of technology on empathy isn’t as simple as it seems, and technology isn’t going anywhere. Fortunately, Turkle says that’s okay.

“It is not about giving up our phones but about using them with greater intention.”

- Sherry Turkle

These are a few things that anyone can try!

  • Reclaim your solitude. Make time to be device free, sit by yourself and just think.

  • Make a practice of unitasking. Practice being present in one task or conversation, even if that conversation is online.

  • Be deliberate about when and where you disconnect and recharge, and take your phone off the table when you’re having a conversation with someone.

  • Reclaim face to face conversations. Arrange a meeting, meal, or coffee instead of sending a text.

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