- Some studies show heavy social media users are less empathic; some show they are more empathic.
- In American adults, more social media use is tied to lower empathy and higher narcissism.
- In Europe and for children aged younger than 18 years, using social media more often is linked to higher empathy.
In debates among academics, journalists, and across dinner tables around the globe, people question whether social media is making modern society less empathic. These types of debates occur historically whenever a new type of media emerges and is widely adopted. In this case, scientific research does not land firmly on one side or the other. Some studies suggest that heavy social media users are less empathic, while others indicate quite the opposite—that heavy social media users are more empathic.
Compelling arguments have been made on both sides as to why social media might influence empathy (the ability to understand and share the feelings of others). On the one hand, spending time online may reduce time spent with people offline, which could make empathy skills become “rusty” because they require practice. However, it is also possible that people may use social media to practice their social skills and transfer these skills to offline interactions.
To investigate the relationship between empathy and social media use, alongside colleagues at the University of Indiana, we asked more than 1,250 Americans to estimate how frequently they checked Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and to complete questionnaires where they self-described various qualities that researchers call empathy, such as trying to take other people’s perspectives, feeling concerned for other people in distress, and feeling bad when others feel bad. Some participants were also tested on how accurately they could identify emotional facial expressions from photographs.
More Social Media Use, Lower Empathy
The more social media people reported using, the lower their levels of empathy. This trend did not vary much according to the type of social media we asked about, how we measured empathy, or participants’ age, gender, or education, with one notable exception. Namely, participants who reported using social media more frequently were more likely to report feeling personal distress in response to other people’s expressions of emotions. Personal distress is a controversial type of “empathy” because, unlike other types of empathy, it does not lead to helping other people when they need it. Given its different nature, it is perhaps unsurprising that personal distress has different results from other measures of empathy.
Also, those who reported using more social media generally reported more symptoms of narcissism and alexithymia (being out of touch with one’s own emotions)—two traits that often go hand-in-hand with low empathy.
Together, our results paint a stark and concerning picture of social media: high use was related to a catalog of unhealthy and undesirable traits. However, we relied on a sample of American adults, many of whom were college students. Given that young adult Americans are some of the heaviest users of social media in the world, is it possible that the trends we found would not be true elsewhere?
Looking Across the Globe
Indeed, researchers in other geographical areas have found opposing results. Researchers in the UK, in Spain, and in the Netherlands have shown that, in their countries, higher social media use was related to higher empathy. And, in a recent study conducted in India, researchers found no relationship between social media use and empathy.
To capture the overall picture, we put all the available studies together for comparison. Doing so revealed that the relationship between social media use and empathy differed based on two factors: age and nationality. On average, studies conducted in Europe found a positive connection between social media use and empathy, whereas studies conducted in the United States found no meaningful connection between the two (although trending slightly negative). In addition, research conducted with children aged younger than 18 years showed a positive connection between social media and empathy, whereas research conducted with adults found no connection. Thus, it appears that our previous result suggesting that higher social media use is related to lower empathy is limited to an adult American population.
Cultural differences in the way social media is used offer a potential explanation for the different associations between social media use and empathy among different geographical populations. A recent study conducted by a transatlantic team of researchers examined the Facebook posts of a sample of Americans and found they were more likely to post updates about their personal achievements and emphasize their uniqueness than Turkish Facebook users. In other words, it seems that Americans tend to use social media in a more self-focused manner than other populations.
With these self-focused social media habits, it is perhaps no surprise that Americans who use social media regularly are not fostering their empathy skills. But social media can, of course, be used in other ways. Populations outside of America appear to use social media for different purposes including fostering social bonds, and, for them, more social media use is associated with being more empathic. Perhaps people’s motivations for using social media can tell us more about their character than simply the amount of time they spend online.
A version of this post also appears on SPSP Character and Context.
Martingano, A. J., Konrath, S., Zarins, S., & Okaomee, A. A. (2022). Empathy, narcissism, alexithymia, and social media use. Psychology of Popular Media, 11(4), 413–422. https://doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000419