Empathy is a cognitive function that serves as the foundation for relationships, a basis for the formation of the moral notion, and a survival mechanism. Researchers are investigating the impact of digital technology on people’s daily lives as it gains more influence. Digital technology allows a wide range of activities, including distant communication, promotes free expression, and lets us see the lives of those on the opposite pole of the world. While technology offers advantages, the risk of dysfunctions could be significantly greater since they might damage one of the most developed cognitive capacities in humans – empathy. A longitudinal study showed that participants’ empathetic concern and perspective-taking significantly decreased over 30 years, as they were exposed to the technology progressively more (Konrath et al., 2011).
Failure to read another person’s emotions will prohibit one from experiencing empathy since the sender’s message will not be received. Nowadays people prefer messaging, as a quick and accessible way to communicate. However, messaging only relies on verbal communication – with no other context. This can further inhibit natural chemical processes in the brain, including the function of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons literally make us mirror witnessed emotions. The classic example would be tearing up at the sight of someone crying. In a study where 6th graders were asked to identify emotions based on images and videotapes. As a result, the scores have significantly improved after a trial in a technology-free camp, adding to the evidence of technology impairing our ability to read emotions (Uhls et al., 2014).
Another important and controversial development – is an algorithm. An algorithm creates a bubble, progressively customizing the information one is exposed to their values and interests, potentially creating biases against the out-groups. Avenanti et al. (2010), conducted an interesting study, exposing people to the videotapes of a darker, whiter, and violet hand being poked. The participants presented strong physical reactions to the skin colour they associated themselves with and nothing to the other colour. Meanwhile, everyone showed an empathetic reaction toward a violet hand. These findings highlight the effects of prejudice on empathy, however, we naturally exhibit empathy toward someone or something we have no bias/prejudice against, such as a violet hand.
Numbing the Emotions
While the internet allows us to use a vast amount of information, search and learn – the content varies and can hardly be controlled despite the reinforced moderation utilized by most websites and apps. People can watch the tragedies of others in foreign locations via digital technology; the internet has removed distance restrictions. Research has shown that in comparison to observing individuals when a person is exposed to images of a large number of people suffering, they are less likely to help as one’s emotional regulation slows the stream of incoming information down. More research has shown that violence online not only inhibits the feeling of remorse but further inhibits one from helping others even when observing a troubling situation nearby.
In conclusion, while digital technology may promote some empathy, it is often limited to persons who intentionally seek and remain in an empathetic atmosphere such as support forums. Technology use must be controlled because it can effortlessly result in adverse effects. On a subconscious level, digital technology may numb users on biological, cognitive, and social levels, preventing empathy and any acts of compassion that may have followed otherwise.
by Diana Sultanova, Mental Health Intern
Avenanti A., Sirigu, A., Aglioti, S. M. (2010). Racial bias reduces empathic sensorimotor resonance
with other-race pain. Current Biology, 1018-1022.
Konrath, S. H., O’Brien, E. H., & Hsing, C. (2011). Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American
College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 180-198.
Uhls Y. T., Michikyan M., Morris J., Garcia D., Small G. W., Zgourou E. & Greenfield P. (2014).
Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues. Computers in Human Behavior, 387-392. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563214003227