College Students and Empathy: Can Social Media Create a Bystander Effect That Can Inhibit One’s Compassion?

Compassion on the Decline Among College Students

A new study finds that today’s college students are not as empathetic as college students of the 1980s and ’90s.

University of Michigan researchers analyzed data on empathy collected from almost 14,000 college students over the last 30 years.

“We found the biggest drop in empathy after the year 2000,” said Sara Konrath, a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research.

“College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait.”

If the data in this research is accurate enough to extrapolate across college students in general, then I consider myself really blessed to have served alongside some of the most compassionate people during my seven years on staff as the college pastor at Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles. So in my own experience this research doesn’t match my reality, but then again I was serving as a college pastor where students were striving to serve God and to serve others in a myriad of ways.

In this 30 year study, researchers have hypothesized several reasons why they think college students in the last 10 years are less compassionate, and less able to empathize, than those students in previous decades.

  1. “The increase in exposure to media during this time period could be one factor,” Konrath said.
  2. 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.
  3. College students today may be so busy worrying about themselves and their own issues that they don’t have time to spend empathizing with others, or at least perceive such time to be limited,” O’Brien said.“College students today may be so busy worrying about themselves and their own issues that they don’t have time to spend empathizing with others, or at least perceive such time to be limited,” O’Brien said.

One of the questions that I asked in the recent post, Technology: Connected, Yet Lonelier Than Ever, was:

I wonder if technology and social media has compressed our relationships into a process that we can barely recognize?

So on the one hand, there is something cool and convenient with clicking a button online that brings us into contact with a person. But on the other hand, the ease and convenience has disconnected us from the process of relationship making.

Has all the technology relationally disconnected us in a sense, replacing the processes (befriending, getting to know each other, sharing life, etc), where instead we just value the end results (number of followers, blog traffic, etc.)

Can social media allows us to keep others at an arm’s length from one another? This can definitely happen in real life as well, but I wonder if social media can exacerbate the bystander effect when it comes to empathizing with others and being compassionately involved? (For a look at some of the more infamous examples of this effect, check out 10 Notorious Cases of the Bystander Effect.

Of course, I could now show you all the wonderful examples of where people have used social media as a means to demonstrate compassion to others. Think of the earthquake in Haiti. The floods in Nashville. The protests in Iran. Etc. Etc.

I guess the question for researchers (and for us) is, are we able to move beyond showing our compassion to others through a click of the button (though there is nothing wrong with that and I hope people keep doing that), and move into situations that may demand more of us than clicking buttons and counting followers?

Maybe this is why each of us plays a various role in the body of Christ? When the body of Christ is working together harmoniously (some online getting involved, others ‘on the ground’ in person involved, others sending money and resources, etc.) it is an unstoppable force.

19 Comments

  1. by Ben on June 2, 2010  2:35 pm Reply

    Good thoughts, I guess if I were to hypothesize this, I would suggest that overall culture has created a dullness in terms of empathy. Sex is a thing to do, not a way to show you love someone; gossip is a common conversational thread where someone's misfortune is the subject for our next gathering; and I am sure 9/11 has something to do with the desensitization of violence.

    Could it simply be that this decade of college students has become a very cynical group? They don't trust authority figures because those are representatives of people that hurt them; they don't trust politicians because polarized commentators dictate how you should view them; and they don't trust each other because that would result in being vulnerable.

    This is a very closed off generation where we worship those that are open with their thoughts and feelings; because so many wish for that transparency but will never have the fortitude to be exposed like that. That in a nutshell decreases the need for empathy towards others.
    .-= Ben´s last blog ..Right Place, Right Time? =-.

    • by Rhett Smith on June 30, 2010  8:11 am Reply

      Ben,

      Good insight on this topic.

      Speaking of cynicism, I guess it's no surprise that shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are uber popular among them. You are right about what cynicism can lead to......

      Rhett

  2. by Ben on June 2, 2010  2:35 pm Reply

    Good thoughts, I guess if I were to hypothesize this, I would suggest that overall culture has created a dullness in terms of empathy. Sex is a thing to do, not a way to show you love someone; gossip is a common conversational thread where someone's misfortune is the subject for our next gathering; and I am sure 9/11 has something to do with the desensitization of violence.

    Could it simply be that this decade of college students has become a very cynical group? They don't trust authority figures because those are representatives of people that hurt them; they don't trust politicians because polarized commentators dictate how you should view them; and they don't trust each other because that would result in being vulnerable.

    This is a very closed off generation where we worship those that are open with their thoughts and feelings; because so many wish for that transparency but will never have the fortitude to be exposed like that. That in a nutshell decreases the need for empathy towards others.
    .-= Ben´s last blog ..Right Place, Right Time? =-.

    • by Rhett Smith on June 30, 2010  8:11 am Reply

      Ben,

      Good insight on this topic.

      Speaking of cynicism, I guess it's no surprise that shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are uber popular among them. You are right about what cynicism can lead to......

      Rhett

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  5. by Curtis Trent on June 3, 2010  4:45 pm Reply

    Rhett,

    Wow, these are some very intriguing observations and considerations. In my counseling work with young adults, college-aged persons I have come to realize the importance of key developmental phases that are essential to emotional and interpersonal functioning, one of the most important being the development of empathy.
    The role of technology in this, and especially social networking, is such a new consideration for me personally that I'm not sure either way, BUT I think it is very important to be asking these questions, to self-critique our own practices. Like you, I can supply plenty of anecdotes of extraordinary empathy demonstrated by people in the millenium generation and yet something in my "gut" tells me there is some truth to this.
    I do appreciate your evenhandedness in these matters, and I find that this sometimes leads to additionally important questions, like, "Are there new processes via technology that empathy can be developed? (i.e. youtube access to a lifestyle/context radically different from one's own that spurs emotional interest in the subject).

    • by Rhett Smith on June 30, 2010  8:14 am Reply

      Curtis,

      Great questions. I think a lot of us are still scrambling to figure out the role and impact of technology in many areas of our lives. Things are changing so fast, and we so quickly adopt these new technologies into our lives without asking what effects they may have on us. Helping people with empathy is a key component in therapy as you stated.

      Rhett

  6. by Curtis Trent on June 3, 2010  4:45 pm Reply

    Rhett,

    Wow, these are some very intriguing observations and considerations. In my counseling work with young adults, college-aged persons I have come to realize the importance of key developmental phases that are essential to emotional and interpersonal functioning, one of the most important being the development of empathy.
    The role of technology in this, and especially social networking, is such a new consideration for me personally that I'm not sure either way, BUT I think it is very important to be asking these questions, to self-critique our own practices. Like you, I can supply plenty of anecdotes of extraordinary empathy demonstrated by people in the millenium generation and yet something in my "gut" tells me there is some truth to this.
    I do appreciate your evenhandedness in these matters, and I find that this sometimes leads to additionally important questions, like, "Are there new processes via technology that empathy can be developed? (i.e. youtube access to a lifestyle/context radically different from one's own that spurs emotional interest in the subject).

    • by Rhett Smith on June 30, 2010  8:14 am Reply

      Curtis,

      Great questions. I think a lot of us are still scrambling to figure out the role and impact of technology in many areas of our lives. Things are changing so fast, and we so quickly adopt these new technologies into our lives without asking what effects they may have on us. Helping people with empathy is a key component in therapy as you stated.

      Rhett

  7. by Vicky Silvers on June 8, 2010  12:21 pm Reply

    I am an editor for Christian.com which is a social network dedicated to the christian community. As I look through your web site I feel a collaboration is at hand. I would be inclined to acknowledge your website offering it to our users as I'm sure our Christian reformed audience would benefit from what your site has to offer. I look forward to your thoughts or questions regarding the matter.

    Vicky Silvers
    vicky.silvers@gmail.com

  8. by Vicky Silvers on June 8, 2010  12:21 pm Reply

    I am an editor for Christian.com which is a social network dedicated to the christian community. As I look through your web site I feel a collaboration is at hand. I would be inclined to acknowledge your website offering it to our users as I'm sure our Christian reformed audience would benefit from what your site has to offer. I look forward to your thoughts or questions regarding the matter.

    Vicky Silvers
    vicky.silvers@gmail.com

  9. by Curtis Carpenter on June 11, 2010  4:48 am Reply

    Wow, these are some very intriguing observations and considerations. In my counseling work with young adults, college-aged persons I have come to realize the importance of key developmental phases that are essential to emotional and interpersonal functioning, one of the most important being the development of empathy.The role of technology in this, and especially social networking, is such a new consideration for me personally that I’m not sure either way, BUT I think it is very important to be asking these questions, to self-critique our own practices. Like you, I can supply plenty of anecdotes of extraordinary empathy demonstrated by people in the millenium generation and yet something in my “gut” tells me there is some truth to this.I do appreciate your evenhandedness in these matters, and I find that this sometimes leads to additionally important questions, like, “Are there new processes via technology that empathy can be developed? (i.e. youtube access to a lifestyle/context radically different from one’s own that spurs emotional interest in the subject).
    +1

  10. by Curtis Carpenter on June 11, 2010  4:48 am Reply

    Wow, these are some very intriguing observations and considerations. In my counseling work with young adults, college-aged persons I have come to realize the importance of key developmental phases that are essential to emotional and interpersonal functioning, one of the most important being the development of empathy.The role of technology in this, and especially social networking, is such a new consideration for me personally that I’m not sure either way, BUT I think it is very important to be asking these questions, to self-critique our own practices. Like you, I can supply plenty of anecdotes of extraordinary empathy demonstrated by people in the millenium generation and yet something in my “gut” tells me there is some truth to this.I do appreciate your evenhandedness in these matters, and I find that this sometimes leads to additionally important questions, like, “Are there new processes via technology that empathy can be developed? (i.e. youtube access to a lifestyle/context radically different from one’s own that spurs emotional interest in the subject).
    +1

  11. Pingback : July 2010: The Influence of Technology in Our Lives | | Rhett Smith:. Marriage and Family Counseling:. Transitioning Life's Journey

  12. Pingback : July 2010: The Influence of Technology in Our Lives | | Rhett Smith:. Marriage and Family Counseling:. Transitioning Life's Journey

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