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Is Digital Media Producing a Less-Empathic Generation of Young People?

There is little doubt that we have entered a wondrous new age, one where every facet of life is evolving and generally doing so in ways we could never have anticipated. As we make our way through what is now dubbed the digital era, early assessments have many concerned for our young.

There are those who see the digital age as creating a group of youngsters with the shortest attention spans in history. Still others express concern that the digital age may actually be interfering with the intellectual development of young people.

iStock_000004111604XSmallIn fairness, there is another group that sees the developments positively and believes that a new, wired generation is able to do things we older folks could never have dreamed up. Those with such a view throw around the new term, multi-tasking, and refer to today’s young positively as digital natives.

However, the alarmists seem to be winning out. And a new study released late spring added one more layer of concern for those who work with children.

The Work of Sara Konrath

One of the disconcerting developments involves a three-decade analysis of prior research conducted by Sara Konrath, a professor affiliated with the psychiatry department at the University of Rochester. Also a researcher for the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, Konrath found that today’s college students are not as empathic as those of prior generations.

The professor arrives at her conclusions after reviewing 72 studies measuring this specific personality trait conducted over a 30-year period (1979-2009). When college students are compared with those from the late 1970s, Konrath found that today’s college students were “less likely to make an effort to understand their friends’ perspectives,” or to “feel tenderness or concern for the less fortunate.”

With the most significant drop occurring after the year 2000, Konrath found that “kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago.” These findings mirror the concerns of those who see today’s young as being extremely self-centered, an attribute that has some folks calling today’s youngsters Generation Me.

Digital Media Responsible?

The alarming development could result from a number of factors though it is clear that Konrath believes the largest culprit is digital media. And when she places the blame, she hits on virtually every one of the concerns often expressed by others.

“In terms of media content, this generation of college students grew up with video games,” she told US News. “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.”

Konrath goes on to point fingers at another popular phenomenon, social media. The professor theorizes that a shift towards online friendships provides youngsters with the ability to “tune out” when they wish. The ability to tune out when conversing online could then spill over to the point that students may tune out even when peers are expressing themselves in face-to-face settings.

This raises new flags and throws a bit of a wrench into the growing sentiment that social media can play a positive role in the education process of young people.

While focusing primarily on the role of digital media, Konrath did speculate that our hyper-competitive society and its unbridled focus on success could also be playing a role. In some cases, it could be the cutthroat nature of such a lifestyle, but it could just as likely be that our fast-paced world prevents us from being able to tune in to the needs of others.

Educator Interest

togetherFurther review of the professor’s work reveals a very interesting assessment of what constitutes a healthy self-focus. By the term healthy, Konrath talks of a youngster developing a strong, confident sense of self, referred to as individualism. This contrasts with unhealthy self-focus that is so inflated it borders on narcissism.

What is also of interest is the professor’s view that self-focus can develop alongside other-focus. Most importantly, in her view, positive levels of individualism can develop alongside collectivism and empathic behavior if nurtured properly.

Such a theory means that people can actually be high in category and low in the other, high in both, or low in both. Konrath has developed a theory around the consequences of an excess in self-focus without a simultaneous focus on others, a situation the researcher calls “social atomization.”

“Socially atomized people have difficulty considering the larger web-like social context in which all humans are embedded,” notes Konrath. Yet another interesting development in those with excessive narcissism is a certain level of aggression.

Konrath’s work could have enormous implication for teachers moving forward. If indeed our digital culture is rendering a generation of self-centered individuals, it will likely fall on schools to construct educational opportunities to combat this negative trend.

1 comment

1 Reed { 10.24.10 at 3:03 am }

Very interesting points. I can see where she is coming from and it is rather alarming. However, like anything, there needs to be moderation. There is a lot of good that has come from the Internet and technology, but when it is used in excess that is when there are problems.

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