Internet Empathy

David Brooks’ most recent blog post expands upon the decline in what I’m going to call testable empathy in this generation as compared to those previous. There is a degree of slippage in exactly which generation he’s referring to, as at times he’s writing clearly of current students, but also refers to the American populace as a whole. The blog post appears here, and the original column he refers to is here.

Brooks does admit that

people under 30 are a remarkable generation: they volunteer more, hurt each other less and hurt themselves less than previous generations

which is a rather striking admission (and absolutely, inspiringly true) for someone about to contemplate the lack of empathy in an entire swath of people, but justifies his point using a study out of the University of Michigan:

Scientific American recently reported on research by Sara H. Konrath of the University of Michigan.  She looked at surveys in which students were asked to rate their own empathy. She found that self-reported empathy has declined sharply over the past decade. Almost 75 percent of the students today rate themselves as less empathetic than the average student 30 years ago.

I’m not going to address the issue of “self-reported empathy” other than noting that this seems to be doing more of examining self-identity than true empathy, but his post did make me wonder about the place/role/change in empathy in the internet generation.

I think it’s absolutely true that people are less obviously, perhaps even productively, empathetic than they used to be. Yet I also believe that a sort of shallow, easy empathy may easily be more prevalent and more readily available than ever before. Look at Facebook and Twitter, two forums for the mass airing of grievances and melancholies, and simultaneously for the simple, passing alleviation of said grievances and melancholies. A “like” or a 3 word expression of sympathy (“I’m so sorry”) are absurdly easy. In a way, people have more opportunities to be empathetic now than at any other time in history. Everywhere are people hurting or in need, and we cannot help but be made aware of them through blogs, forums, and social media. How much more in the way of financial aid and more material donations has the Red Cross been able to provide to New Orleans and Haiti and Japan because of $10 donations through texting? Is that not empathy?

Where Brooks is leading this (and where I am even if he is not), however, is the question of how efficacious this new empathy actually is. When a “dislike” comment is made on a depressed Facebook posting so easily, is it true empathy, or is it now a socially-dictated response? Some of these posts are likely very genuine, yet I also wonder how many people see someone else suffering (or at least suffering to a degree they are willing to broadcast to all their friends and acquaintances), make their 5 second espousal of commiseration or condolence, and immediately flip back to whatever it was they were doing before. Out of sight, out of mind is even more potentially dangerous when there are so many distractions in the very same browser window one is using to learn of someone else’s downfall.

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