Too much time spent online appears to be reducing empathy

By Christina Patterson  /  The Guardian

Tue, Feb 25, 2014 - Page 9

She said she took “great pride in her work” and was “excited” to be part of a “lovely team,” but, on Tuesday last week, as Hollie Gazzard finished her shift at the hair salon in southwest England she worked at, a young man stuck a blade into her flesh and stabbed her to death.

Colleagues screamed as they watched her fall; paramedics tried, but could not save her. People passing by stared, as they always do when tragedies unfold in front of their eyes. When there is screaming and crying, and blood flowing as a life ebbs away, it is hard not to stare. Yet some of them did more than just gawp at the scene, they whipped out their phones and videoed it.

For the parents whose “brightest star” had gone out, perhaps it is some tiny consolation that the footage does not seem to be on YouTube. Perhaps it is not there because police “urged” members of the public not to post it.

“I am sure nobody related to the woman who died wants to see it on social media,” the chief inspector on the scene said.


One might think people would guess that those whose hearts have been broken might not want their daughter’s last moments to become an online hit, but it looks as though they did not.

For instance, it appears that the people who watched young soldier Lee Rigby have his neck hacked into by terrorists in Woolwich, south London, in May last year, thought that the best way to respond was to create a YouTube sensation.

“Uncensored video of Woolwich mujahideen” has had more than 69,000 hits, while “Raw footage of Woolwich attack” has had more than 460,000. The last figure is even more than “British soldier hacked to death” and also tops the views for “Sleeping dancing kittens.”

It is hardly news that people like a bloody thrill — Romans lined up to watch wild animals tear prisoners into chunks, while Elizabethans thought a public hanging was a good way to follow a Sunday stroll. Yet at most times, watching people die has been something for a special occasion, not an opportunity to increase one’s Twitter following, or get Facebook likes.

Nearly everyone spends big chunks of their lives online, but young people are spending particularly large parts of their lives online.

According to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, eight-to-18-year-olds are now spending nearly eight hours a day online and are so good at multitasking that they are packing that time with nearly 11 hours of “content.”

There are advantages to this, of course. Young brains are receptive and if a person is really good at flicking between windows, they can probably learn a few languages while Snapchatting to their friends. However, they probably do not do that, instead choosing to spend a lot of time posting things online that are all about themselves.

If a person posts a photograph of themselves — with their friends, or in a new outfit looking hot — it is pretty clearly all about them. Yet if that person posts footage of breakdancing kittens, it might as well be too — “Yes, the kittens are cute, but look at me: I’m funny and ironic and cool.”

So what about posting footage of a soldier being cut down in the street? It could be about the soldier, but it could also be: “God, this is awful and I got there first.”

According to a new book called The App Generation by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner and digital media expert Katie Davis, young people spend 80 percent of their time on social media talking about themselves.

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.