Tue, Feb 25, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Too much time spent online appears to be reducing empathy

By Christina Patterson  /  The Guardian

If that figure is true, it has to be called narcissism; if it’s 80 percent, it is narcissism on a sociopathic scale.

Sociopaths are not great at putting themselves in other people’s shoes, or, if they are, they would rather not. Most people are not sociopaths, but the ability of young people to empathize might not be quite as well developed as their ability to post selfies on Instagram.


Psychologist Sara Konrath has collated evidence from 72 studies which seems to show that empathy levels among US college students are 40 percent lower than they were 20 years ago. In the past 10 years, she says there has been an especially sharp drop.

It is not yet clear whether a digital diet is what has caused this decline, but there is quite a lot of evidence to show that, as people spend more time online, they read books and stories about other people’s lives less.

A recent study by psychologists at the New York School of Social Research showed that reading literary fiction helped people understand others better. It does this because, in the words of the writer Elizabeth Strout in her novel The Burgess Boys, it is the imagination that enables you to “fall feet first into the pocket of someone else’s world.”

It is already hard to imagine a world where one does not have a universe at the click of a mouse and most people would not want to. As Pip in Great Expectations might have said: What larks, to be alive in this revolution. Yet where there are gains, there are also losses, so let us do what we can to limit those losses.

We could start by teaching children that when you see a girl bleeding to death at the end of her shift, what you do is not grab a tiny screen, point and click. What you do, if you have done what you can to get her help, is go somewhere quiet and cry.

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