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Is Technology Making Us Less Empathic?

The Internet desensitizes us to shocking images, diminishing our empathy.

Most of us spend quite a bit of time with our technology, and while some experts argue that we are developing better social networking skills and thus enhancing technological empathy, I think all this online time is weakening our face-to-face human contact skills. Many people, particularly young digital natives, gain social support through their hours of texting and social networking, but does that person who averages more than 11 hours each day using technology look you in the eye when you have a conversation? I know when someone maintains eye contact, I have a greater sense that he or she is listening and interested in what I have to say. I feel a greater empathic contact.
My writing and life partner Gigi Vorgan and I were recently invited to write an opinion piece for CNN.com that asked the question, "Is the internet killing empathy?" In the editorial, we argued that the Internet desensitizes us to shocking images and diminishes our empathic skills. We can't turn away from videos of gruesome events that we view online - we have that same kind of grim curiosity that compels drivers to slow down and gaze at a fatal car crash.
The 164 posted comments expressed a range of reactions. Here are a few examples:
"You can't kill what some never had in the first place."
"People have always been cruel. I think the anonymity of internet just gives them cover to be crueler."
"People who don't understand the often sick sense of humor that floats around the internet need to stay off the internet."
"Hold on, I need to look up this 'empathy' word you speak of."
Many of the comments were humorous; others were hostile; some were insightful. The article and the responses clearly created a forum and a type of connection among those who viewed it and chose to engage in the conversation. The new technology does seem to be creating a new way for us to communicate our feelings, but to a digital immigrant, it feels less immediate and less effective in expressing subtle emotions than the old-fashioned face-to-face approach.
What do you think? I'd like to know how you feel about it.
Also visit me on http://www.drgarysmall.com/.

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Gary Small is a professor of psychiatry at UCLA. He directs the Memory and Aging Research Center and the UCLA Center on Aging.

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