Recent studies of college students show that while narcissism
is on the rise, empathy
is actually declining. The reasons are sundry and various— a cocktail of cultural values, parenting
styles, a greater emphasis on individual success amid more competition
, and, of course, technology. Like the adults on Facebook
, college students also believe —looking at the photos and status updates of their hundreds of “friends” — that everyone is happier than they, as a study published by sociologist Hui-Tzu Grace Chu this year demonstrated. Importantly, there was a correlation between the years a person had been on Facebook, the amount of time he or she spent on it a week, and the inclination to believe that other people’s lives were better and happier. Conversely, Facebook users who frequently spent time with actual real-world friends — presumably sharing details about the things in their lives that weren’t going brilliantly — didn’t feel that way. The posing and self-interest that Facebook encourages, as well as the time spent on it in lieu of face-to-communications, appear to contribute to the decline in empathy.
What about the adolescents who are growing up on Facebook, preening and prancing for their audience of “friends?” Adolescence is a time when empathic skills — the ability to “read” and connect to another person’s emotions — are honed and developed. At the same time, just around the start of puberty (at age eleven or twelve), the brain is undergoing pruning, as Gary Small writes in iBrain, referencing the work of Robert McGivern and others. It turns out that empathic skills (both cognitive and affective) are actually at a lower point than they were at earlier ages. The “growth” of the brain isn’t growth in the ordinary sense. Other more recent studies focused on subjects as young as the age of four that tested their ability to “read” faces along with MRIs which showed which parts of the brain were activated underscored the fact that the developmental trajectory of certain abilities is less straightforward than previously thought. Enhanced abilities appear to be gained and then lost during certain stages of brain development.
The larger question is whether these adolescent brains are getting the one-on-one workout they need to develop empathy. Is digital activity supplanting the real-time communication that is a necessary component of the adolescent’s learning curve for empathy? Or is it possible, as Dr. Small writes. that “…they could remain locked into a neural circuitry that stays at an immature and self-absorbed emotional level, right through adulthood.” Should parents and teachers be finding ways of compensating for the experiences they are losing in a digital world?
It seems possible to quantify that loss by looking at how kids spend their time. In case you happen not to be paying for an adolescent’s cell phone, here are the absolutely mind-boggling statistics on texting, according to Nielsen at the end of last year: the average number of texts sent by female teens 3,952 texts a month! ( In contrast, boys “only” sent 2,815 on average.) So I do the math and come up with an average number of 730 hours a month and realize that comes out to a little less than 5.5 an hour. That doesn’t sound so bad: one every 10 minutes or so, right? But wait: don’t these kids have to sleep? I allot them eight hours of tech-free dreaming a day, do the subtraction, and now the girls are averaging 8 an hour. But stop! Aren’t they going to school? Soccer practice? Ballet lessons? Seeing their friends? Doing their homework? How are they fitting in 8 texts an hour, along with being on Facebook and all the rest of their digital activities? They fit it in by what’s called “multitasking” in the jargon of our times, also known as acting in a state of perpetual distraction. And isn’t distraction, in many ways, the very opposite of empathy?
Do they actually have time to have a conversation when they have to get that texting done? (In her Sunday Review piece in The New York Times called “The Flight from Conversation,” Sherry Turkle writes that she’s heard about a new skill from her students: “…it involves maintaining eye contact with someone while you’re texting someone else; it’s hard but it can be done.” Keep in mind that these are college students at MIT.)
Here’s one story I hear from the mother of a 14-year-old daughter who’s been on Facebook for a year: “I finally relented and let her get on Facebook six months ago. I mean, all of her friends were on it and I didn’t want her to be left out. But, you know, the bigger her social network got —the more people she ‘friended’ who she didn’t really know well — the more left out she felt. Mind you, these ‘friends’ weren’t strangers but they were boys and girls she didn’t have all that much real-life experience with in school. She started obsessing about what photos she should post, worried about every detail, whether or not something she wrote or put up made her seem geeky or somehow out of it. She got into Facebook spats with people because of postings. I’d like her to take a break from it all but she’s every resistant. It’s confusing to know what to do, what would be best for her.”
The parents I speak to are torn because most firmly believe that not having technological literacy will hobble their children’s futures. Both younger and older parents model behaviors that are technologically dependent as well; cell phones ping at dinner, laptops are open all evening long. One sixteen-year-old son has been on Facebook since 8th grade, chats on it, and also texts constantly. His mother says, “My son's friends vividly express all kinds of emotion--and the fast changing ramifications of their emotions with their short bursts of ‘BAD DAY. I HATE ’ Or ‘Today is the best.’ Or ‘hate Daniel’ or’ ‘love Daniel.’ My son, who is more private, seldom posts how he feels. But when he does post, 95% of the time it is a feeling.” I read the example she gives and I wonder about “Daniel.” Was that comment posted, expecting that “Daniel” will read it and either wince that he is “hated” or smile because he is “loved?” I ask her what she thinks of all these connections and she replies: “The kids’ willingness to be vulnerable with what is truly going on for them makes the mother in me wince. Don't they know they are giving the world ammunition to hurt them? “ But she adds, with the experience of having raised three other children whose exposure to social media came at later times in their lives, “I do think that the writer thinks Daniel will read that she hates him right then or that she is so upset that she forgets how what she’s said will impact Daniel. The forgetting moments seem like moments of that pure teenage narcissism to me —you know, where they think they’re the only ones and their actions are only about themselves.”
All of this is true enough — teenage drama and angst have long been part of the picture, long before the eell, the text, and Facebook — but what if they don’t outgrow the narcissism? What will happen to Ophelia and Hamlet then? Will they be able to feel empathy for their friends? Will their friends be capable of responding to them with empathy? Or will they just have Facebook “friends?”
Konrath, Sara H., Edward H.G. O’Brien, and Courtney Hsing. “ Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students over Time: A Meta-analysis.” Personality and Social Psychology Review. http://psr.sagepub.com/content/15/2/180
Twenge, Jean M., Sara Konrath, Joshua D. Foster, W. Keith Campbell, and Brad J. Bushman. “Egos Inflating Over Time: A Cross-Temporal Meta-analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, Journal of Personality, 76:4, August 2008.
Chiu, Hui Tazu Grace and Nicholas Edge. “They are Happier and Having Better Lives than I am: The Impact of Using Facebook on Perceptions of Others’ Lives,” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, volme `15, Number 2, 2012,.
Kadosh, Kathrin Cohen, Roi Cohen Kadosh, Frederic Dick, and Mark H. Johnson, “Developmental Changes in Effective Connectivity in the Emerging Core Face Network.
Cerebral Cortex, do.10.1093, cercor/bhq245
Cantlon, Jessia, Phillipe Pinel, Stanislau Dehaene, and Kevin A. Pelphrrey. “Cortical Representations of Symbols, Object, and Faces Are Pruned Back during Early Childhood,” Cerebral Cortex, 2011 Jan: 2011, 191-199.