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How Social Media is Killing Empathy

How Social Media is killing Empathy

Read time [10-15 min]

Outline:

  • How social media has done good for the world
  • When the internet killed the Golden Rule
  • It overflows into real life
  • Getting empathy back

Author’s Comments

 This is going to be a different type of post for me. It might not seem like a health topic, but I feel like this phenomenon has wide ranging effects on our our individual psyches, and the social fabric of our culture as a whole.

I’m writing this mostly because it’s interesting to me. However, if it makes you see the world differently, then I hope you can see that your world view, or any world view for that matter isn’t black and white. It’s a world filled with gray and nuance, that are painted by a brush of someone’s unique life experiences.

Unlike most of my articles, you won’t see references and scientific explanations. This one is strictly commentary and my thoughts on blank page.

Enjoy, and please let me know what you think in the comments.

What Made Social Media So Cool?

About a month before this article, I noticed something interesting at my own wedding. Most of the guests were people that are very close to me and my family, but there were also a lot of people there that I haven’t seen in 3-5 years. The funny part was that with these guests, it didn’t feel like I haven’t seen them in ages. I knew about their travels, their children, and the new house that they just bought.

I feel like this was the original hope and intent for social media; to help keep your close friends together as distance and  busy-ness seeks to drive you apart.

Dr. Chung had not seen this group in 3 years, but Facebook made it felt like they were always here.

Dr. Chung had not seen this group in 3 years, but Facebook made it felt like they were always here.

It’s also made it easier to collaborate and work on projects together from far away. All of a sudden, you have friends on the opposite side of the country podcasting together (Dr. Brian Tiu and Heal Yourself Radio), and you have an explosion of communication between scientists and clinicians of different disciplines. The collective volume of human knowledge is growing exponentially by the mere fact that we are able to talk and share instantly.

But while the collective volume of human beings has grown, the collective nature of human beings got placed under a microscope, and a lot of it isn’t pretty….

And then the Internet Killed the Golden Rule

Do onto others as you wish onto yourself – The Golden Rule

The Golden Rule is an idea that has a common thread amongst most philosophies and religions, but beyond that it is a foundation for feeling empathy for another human being. It gives us the ability to sit back and say:

  • What would I want people to do for me if I had just lost my job?
  • Why might this person want to support Hillary Clinton?
  • Would I feel the same way about guns if I had a family member held up at gun point?
  • How would I want people to treat me if I made a Youtube video about something I cared about for the first time?

A lot of people take this into account when they are interacting with live human beings in a one-on-one environment. For some it’s because they believe it’s the right thing to do, but for others, there’s a fear of repercussion when faced with a live human being on the other end, even if that repercussion is as simple as an awkward body language. With the internet, it’s just a two dimensional screen of code.

Just watch what happens to a Facebook post if you talk about a polarizing subject like President Obama, Gun-Rights, or vaccines. People come out of the woodwork to place a verbal assault on the opposing view with little regard to how they would want to have the conversation. It’s embarrassing the way some of these discussions turn into childish name calling and obscenity laced rants that would never fly in person, where the environment requires empathy.

In addition to a loss of social etiquette, an unforseen consequence of the world being connected through an online medium is the phenomenon of social shaming. Social shaming emerged as a tool for people to mobilize large groups on the internet to embarrass someone or to make their lives miserable.

The problem is that internet shaming has done good things too. It’s saved the lives of abused animals and it’s called out slimy corporate executives who want to price gauge the consumer for a life saving drug.

But with the internet, things can go overboard. Take these two examples:

A private inside joke between 2 friends was posted on Twitter as a sexist comment, went viral, and led to the firing of the shamed and the shamer. Article

Reddit falsely attacks girl raising money for charity as a fraud. Article

In both examples, social media outlets were used to mobilize hundreds or thousands of people to publicly shame innocent people. The joke between friends led to people losing their jobs, while the girl raising money for charity had death threats and her home address posted on the internet.

It all begs the question: “would I want this to happen to me?”

 Lack of Empathy Online Leads to Lack of Empathy Offline

It’s interesting to observe societal trends in human behavior since social media became a dominant form of communication. Smart phones and social media have created a shift in behavior for in-person interactions. Take a look at this list and see if you’ve noticed some of the same things I have:

  • People miss or cancel appointments lass minute more than ever showing little regard for someone’s time.
  • Flaking in communication is universally despised, but is the most common complaint in dating and relationships.
  • People are increasingly more likely to have an emotional interaction through their phones, than in a face to face interaction in real time.
  • People are less likely to resolve conflict in a face to face interaction, but will immediately post a cryptic social media message to stir an online resolution

Now these trends might have emerged anyway and maybe you are right. However, some recent psychological research has brought up a very interesting point that ties all of this together.

Social Media has taken the lid off of our inner narcissist

Narcissim on Facebook: Self-Promotional and Anti-Social Behavior
Hide and Seek: Narcissism and selfie-related behavior

The unique thing about social media is the way it impacts the reward system of the brain. Every time someone clicks the “Like” button or the little hearts on Twitter and Instagram, your brain gets a little shot of dopamine; the chemical in the brain that makes you feel good. Every time dopamine gets released in the brain, the connections between neurons gets strengthened to seek the same response.

Likes and Hearts

The new currency of social interaction

This creates a scenario in which people are posting on social media to get likes, shares, retweets, and comments as their reward instead of the goal of creating a deeper human connection. So what you end up getting are people posting memes, snarky comments, selfies, and other superficial posts that get engagement in the hopes of getting virtual validation.

Even more distressing is the confirmation bias that social media creates. Confirmation bias is the phenomenon that allows someone to believe they are correct because they only seek and look for things that agree with their beliefs. A swarm of people will like and comment creating a false sense that everyone believes the same way, when in reality it’s a vocal minority.

Now let’s be clear, this doesn’t mean that people who use social media are narcissists. It means that it increases narcissistic behavior. The primary side effect of increased narcissim is…..

Decreased empathy.

What now?

Social media is here to stay. There’s not really any way around it. With that said, there are ways we can make social media a place where you can be engaged, but you don’t have to be a a jerk.

  1. When posting a comment to someone’s thread ask yourself “how would I respond to someone saying this on one of my posts”.
  2. Think about if you would make a post if you were having a live conversation with an actual human being.
  3. Stop passive aggressive posts….just stop…forever
  4. Take a hiatus from liking  posts. If you don’t have a response that’s worth words, then save it for something that will create a connection.
  5. Remember that everyone has a story to why they believe what they believe. It’s reasonable, and even encouraged to disagree, but the internet is a cesspool for irrational and emotional responses to having your belief challenged. Be Human

As always, I appreciate and look forward to your comments.