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  • Fauzia Haque

Exercising Empathy on Social Media

By: Fauzia Haque, Contributing Writer

Social media apps have taken over the world, skyrocketing in business as people try to cure their boredom due to the seemingly everlasting pandemic. Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and more apps have all been profiting off of the luxuries that the pandemic has given them: more people at home scrolling through their feeds in order to pass the time. However, a certain trend has become more increasingly clear as concepts like “cancel culture” prevails. People have lost their sense of ability to exercise empathy. Social media has now been intertwined with the idea of bullying, burnout, and constant criticization, hurting worldwide users’ ability to feel for each other.

Empathy is categorized into two broad categories as affective empathy and cognitive empathy. Affective empathy refers to the individual’s abilities to feel the same emotion someone else might be experiencing at the time whereas cognitive empathy signifies the distinct ability to identify the emotion that someone is feeling. This technological phenomenon is not new to society as psychologists have been experimenting on this odd trend for the past couple of years. A study conducted in 2015 by psychologists Mark Carrier, John Bunce, Alexander Sprandlin, and Larry Rosen, titled “Virtual empathy: Positive and negative impacts of going online upon empathy in young adults,” investigates this exact phenomenon and how deeply enrooted it is in our society. These four psychologists tried to find a correlational relationship between online activity, computer as gateway, and playing video games against the relative numbers of real-world cognitive empathy, the real-world affective empathy, and virtual empathy.

The psychologists gathered 1,390 participants from the University of Southern California to determine these correlational values among a young group of internet-using adults. The researchers administered different scales in order to track the participants’ usage of social media and to assess what levels of empathy the individuals believed themselves to have while scrolling through social media or even playing video games. The results of the study illustrated that going online in general had a very small negative impact on cognitive and affective real-world empathy and improved face-to-face communication. Video gaming reduced real-world empathy in both genders but not face-to-face time. Virtual empathy was positively correlated, although lower, with real-world empathy. Both real-world and virtual empathy were positively correlated to social support but real-world empathy was 5-6 times stronger. Other unrelated activities did not have an impact on empathy. Real-world empathy and virtual empathy scores were significantly correlated positively. Virtual empathy subscales were positively correlated but weaker than real-world. The study implicates that spending time online does not decrease real-world empathy or face-to-face interactions, but rather that video games or other specific online activities can affect empathy rather than the amount of time people spend virtually.

The study also shined a light on major discrepancies between men and women when it comes to their empathy levels while playing video games or scrolling through their social media feeds. Women tend to have more empathy than men, but technology was shown to have the ability to lower women’s empathy whereas men tend to stay the same. Cognitive empathy in women seemed to have been more affected within the results than the men. Their hours spent on the screen and their real-world empathy was positively correlated but their cognitive empathy was negatively impacted in both video games and computers as gateway that don’t lead to face-to-face sight. Male real-world empathy was negatively impacted by only video games.

This study reinforces the ideals that many parents and educators have regarding the mental state of adolescents. Excessive screen time coupled with minimal time with face-to-face or physical human interactions gives today’s adolescents insufficient time to grow and mature as young adults. With the rise of insensitivity and ignorance, many have lost their ability to connect to their emotions, lacking their social sensor that allows them an extension of their own feelings in order to increase their relatability between other people.

However, it is important to note that social media does not always have to be a bad influence nor does it have to be an item that puts an individual as a disadvantage. Prioritizing eye contact and channeling social media to instead learn social cues and how to interact with people through utilizing the direct messaging systems are great ways to enable better and smoother conversations. Take a deep breath and do not act defensively in the face of interpersonal conflicts. These steps can go a long way in order to help an individual emotionally and empathetically grow!

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