How Social Media Impedes Empathy

How often a day do you check your phone? Is it Instagram notifying you that you have 250 likes on your selfie rather than 249? Is it that Facebook group chat that is always arguing about politics? Or is that news page reporting the tragic occurrence of another mass shooting striking fear into our hearts. Over the past two decades, social media has developed at an alarming pace, constantly upgrading to allow for the quickest way to spread information. Today, we are granted unlimited access to every database, website, and individualized profile with the press of a button. Didn’t think this kind of power came with a price? Unfortunately, it does.

Every human being possesses a trait called empathy which allows us to account for another person’s feelings, emotions, or experiences. Without empathy, it would be difficult to uphold a successful community for communication, cooperation, love and compassion would not exist. It is a vital trait for humanity to have; and yet it seems to be suffering since the emergence of technology. Studies show that technology and social media obstruct empathy in human beings, creating a generation of people who experience difficulty with putting themselves in another person’s shoes.

Social Media vs. Empathy

Social media has made forming connections with people across the world easier and more doable than ever before. It’s easy to think that these new connections would allow for an overall better understanding of one another, – it seems to hold the opposite effect. So then how does social media impede empathy? There are a few reasons that answer this question:

We Witness the Same Experiences Over and Over Again

Compassion fatigue is a common phenomenon in which an individual becomes numb to tragic incidents as a result of frequently seeing it. Our brains can only handle so much emotional stress and when we have constant access to these traumas, they become so overbearing that our brains actually shut them out. This phenomenon has always existed; however, the emergence of technology has only enhanced it, since it is always accessible to us. Every day there is a new notification on our cellphones by some news sources informing us of yet another tragic mass shooting clouding our hearts. If we go on Twitter or Facebook we see people endlessly writing out their inconveniences and problems. When we see this over and over again we begin to lose the ability to feel empathy.

The Role of Other People and Groups

There is a natural disposition in human beings that crave being “right”. Social media can actually build upon this feeling through confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is defined as a way of processing information through the groups and people whose beliefs coincide with yours. It has been observed that human beings are generally more empathic and understanding when conversing face to face with another individual. In this environment there is no pressure to please a large group of people and ideas are exchanged civilly. However, according to Emily Bruneau, a neuroscientist at MIT, empathy often falters when these individuals identify with a group that holds a certain ideology and belief. This is common on social media where individuals constantly seek confirmation. Once that confirmation is found within a large pool of users, it becomes easy to demonize other groups that do not comply with their beliefs. This promotes constant arguing online where progress cannot be made due to the lack of empathy.

How Does Social Media Affect Self Esteem?

Living in a socially upstanding society, there is a pressure placed on individuals to strive for perfection. For decades society has created unrealistic expectations of the perfect image that involves factors such as beauty, success, intelligence, and relationships. Although it is known that most of these factors are exaggerated and edited to perfection, human beings still compare themselves to others for validation. With the addition of social media, the need for comparison is greater than ever before because individuals are witnessing “perfection” in the image of people who are “just like them”. These are not the posts of highly paid models or brilliant billionaires that people see. Instead people are comparing themselves to the posts of classmates, coworkers, family members and acquaintances. Social media allows individuals to place “filters” on their lives so that they can show the version of themselves they want to be perceived as. In this way, humanity loses its authenticity and suddenly everything an individual does is not good enough if someone else’s post implies they are doing better. Humanity lacks the comfort of failure and imperfection which causes individuals to hold a negative self-image.

Cyberbullying: The Consequences of Hiding Behind a Screen

Cyberbullying displays the dangers of social media usage and how this platform can sometimes give users the security to pass judgement on others without thought. Today we are warned of what could happen when cyberbullying is taken too far through the tragic losses and mental detriment of its victims. Then why does the phenomena still exist? Social media has inadvertently made passing judgments on others the societal norm and it has become more frequent and personal. Posts that receive the most views poke fun at embarrassing and negative moments, giving the impression that another person’s misery is funny. Studies show that judging others is an involuntary response that is done without thought and that individuals who lack a positive self-image are more likely to judge negatively about others. Social media enhances these involuntary thoughts due to online accepted practices. Ultimately, since individuals lack self-confidence from social networking, people defend themselves through negatively judging others.

How to practice empathy while using social media

Social media has a large impact on our brains and it’s important to acknowledge this. Once we are able to understand the negative consequences we can make the choice to move in a more positive direction. Studies and experiments have displayed that practicing mindfulness has a significant effect on increasing empathy and confidence in individuals. A key factor about mindfulness is self-empathy where we must learn and understand our own emotions to enable us to make empathetic connections to others. For more information on mindfulness and ways to practice it, refer back to the blog post Why Mindfulness Isn’t New which can also be found through accessing

As for social media, sometimes it is wise to take a step back. It can be beneficial to log out for a few hours and tune into what is happening right in front of you. In this way, it becomes possible to have genuine interactions with those around you, allowing you to listen, understand, be heard and build upon empathy.

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