Digital media are helping sap teenagers' empathy, according to a new study. The study claims that teens' sense of emphathy has dropped over the past decade, and argues that various forms of digital media are to blame.
"In terms of media content, this generation of college students grew up with video games, and a growing body of research, including work done by my colleagues at Michigan, is establishing that exposure to violent media numbs people to the pain of others."
This is now a cliche, well-worn and reliable: games turning kids into monsters.
Note the collapse of all gaming into violent media. And note the lack of any proof that violent media causes real-world violence, despite a couple of generations' worth of study; instead they fall back on the hard-to-quantify "numbness" level.
Partly the empathy crash is driven by Web 2.0, add the authors:
The recent rise of social media may also play a role in the drop in empathy, suggests O'Brien.
"The ease of having 'friends' online might make people more likely to just tune out when they don't feel like responding to others' problems, a behavior that could carry over offline," he said.
The study also mentions tv, but the balance seems to be gaming and social media (and we can quibble that much of tv is digital, rather than otherwise, too).
Where to begin with a response? Without having the full study to hand, we can work from that article for now. I'd love to pore over the details.
First, note that non-digital factors don't seem to be in play. One could argue, for instance, that a hypercompetitive market economy tends to devalue empathy (did the study cut off before the Great Recession?). Did the rapid growth of the financial sector, say, produce more or less empathetic role models? Did the increased scramble for jobs after the 2001 dot.com crash make teens more concerned about the feelings of others?
Or, as one author notes, changes in child-rearing practices clearly play a role in changes in teen character (and I love her smack at The SecretTM). Consider the self-esteem movement, for instance; does a drive to make people feel better about themselves make them care more about others? Instead, it is, as we've long known, very easy to blame fearsome media rather than social practices. This sometimes leads to the politically facile calls for censorship, rather than the daunting task of child-rearing and/or educational reform.
Second, let's compare other media. Did tv make kids less empathetic before 2000, or are the authors willing to argue that there's been a huge spike upwards in violent content? (rather than violence itself, which keeps dropping, embarrassingly) A few decades back, did movies make humans care more or less for one another? How about books? We have centuries, even millenia of reflections on that score. Do any of these continue to play a role? Are they countervailing forces? It's curious how social media and gaming simply land on an innocent generation, warping them into monsters, while adults watch in amazement.
Third, how have these media impacted... adults? After all, the median age of gamers is in the 30s, apparently. And social media are generally used across age brackets. Have grown-ups also seen their empathy sapped, or are we better stronger wiser? (One could point out that the "those dangerous kids" mem goes back centuries, if not millenia)
Fourth, at a meta-level perhaps, we can appreciate the age of these arguments, if not the data's novelty. The social media ironically having antisocial effects meme has been around for a while, from old criticisms that virtual communities aren't real to the "egocasting" semi-argument.
The empathy bit has a curious ancestry, in Phil Dick's lifelong obsession with technology and empathy. Recall the "empathy box" religion in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) Would the authors be able to imagine cases of networked technology building empathy?
I could say more, but would prefer to see the study itself. Maybe social media could help - and I feel more callous towards you already.