In a widely circulated clip from “Conan” in 2013, Louis C. K. went into a jeremiad against cellphones. Among other criticisms, he argued that they were destroying the ability of children to feel for others.
“They don’t look at people when they talk to them and they don’t build empathy,” he said. “Kids are mean, and it’s ’cause they’re trying it out. They look at a kid and they go, ‘You’re fat,’ and then they see the kid’s face scrunch up and they go, ‘Ooh, that doesn’t feel good to make a person do that.’ ”
“But when they write, ‘You’re fat,’ ” he continued, pantomiming typing on a phone, “then they just go, ‘Mmm, that was fun, I like that.’ ”
The riff was a darkly humorous version of what has become conventional wisdom about the increasing number of screens and our decreasing capacity for empathy.
Sherry Turkle’s new book, “Reclaiming Conversation,” and a pile of research and many highly publicized cases of cyberbullying have backed up this assertion, especially as it pertains to youth.
A 2010 study from the University of Michigan found that the empathy of college students between 1979 and 2009 dropped off considerably after 2000, with the researchers speculating that the rising prominence of personal technology was one of several factors.
Yet there is a different interpretation of young people’s levels of empathy, one that takes into account their far greater tolerance today for lifestyles and values not their own. Larry D. Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, who specializes in the effects of technology, worked on a recent study in the journal Computers in Human Behavior that measured the impact of spending time online on real-world empathy.
Dr. Rosen’s team found that being on the Internet “does not displace face-to-face time nor reduce real-world empathy” and that “virtual empathy was positively correlated with real-world empathy.”
Empathy, their study suggests, can be dispensed and felt virtually, though in-person empathy — a hug, for instance, as opposed to a Facebook “like” — has six times the impact on feelings of social support. (The study also found that the specific type of online activity can be crucial; playing video games, for example, had “negative effects” on empathy.)
“I don’t think it’s a problem with a lack of empathy, but a different style,” Dr. Rosen said in an interview. “We have to think of empathy as a continuum. The experience that we hear from kids and young adults is they do feel like they’re being empathetic.”
This new style of empathy may play out most saliently in acceptance of people that previous generations have judged more harshly. According to the General Social Survey, administered by the research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, the percentage of American adults who viewed homosexuality as “always wrong” rose through the 1970s and ’80s, peaking in AIDS-phobic 1987 at three-quarters of the population.
As of 2014, the most recent year for which data are available, it stands at 40 percent, overshadowed by the 49 percent who think there is nothing wrong with homosexuality, while support for same-sex marriage, especially among 18-to-34-year-olds, has risen sharply.
Dr. Rosen credits at least some of this considerable change to social media.
“Now we’re all so open and seemingly somewhat honest behind the screen,” he said, “so there’s more opportunity to observe it and go, ‘Hey, this friend of a friend is going through a gender-change operation, and I see it on his Facebook page.’ We have more of an opportunity to build up a feeling of fairness and equality because we’re exposed to much more of everybody’s lives now.”
While critics of social media may contend that seeing someone’s status update is a weak replacement for a person-to-person conversation, “that indirect access feels to younger people like direct access,” Dr. Rosen said. “It’s substituted for it. They feel more connected rather than less connected.”
A 2014 study from the University of North Florida found patterns suggesting “that Facebook, in facilitating great social connection, may encourage some aspects of empathy in contrast to previous reports.”
One reason we may condemn social media for its narcissism is because we view it as a monolith, when there are numerous subcategories of its use. There is a great difference, for instance, between posting a dozen selfies at a rooftop party versus linking to a charity’s donation page and writing a personal statement about the cause.
The study, which drew mostly from unmarried participants, examined how empathy changed related to a few user activities on Facebook, including private chat and messages and publicly commenting on status updates.
Men scored higher than females on “Perspective Taking” — that is, a cognitive “ability to place oneself in another’s situation” — from both private messages and public commenting, although those actions were negatively correlated with “Personal Distress,” or “the anguish felt during others’ hardships and troubles.”
Women were not affected as much by these two activities, though the researchers noted that they “scored significantly higher than males in all empathy subscales, except for Perspective Taking.”
What these findings suggest is that certain types of Facebook interaction may help a person put himself in another’s shoes — and, in this study at least, it is usually a “himself” who gains the most benefit, even if it doesn’t always result in the Clintonian registration of pain.
“In face-to-face connections, you tend to stay with people you’re most familiar with or have most in common with,” said Tracy Alloway, an associate professor of psychology and the lead author of the paper. “But Facebook can break down those boundaries. We can be exposed to different ways of thinking and emotional situations. On a somewhat superficial level, individuals disclose things about themselves, and that facilitates maybe not a deep sense of closeness, but the next time you see them, you may feel you know them a little better.”
Well, she might. A Pew Research Center report from January found that women with an average-size Facebook network are aware of 13 percent more stressful events in the lives of their friends than those without an account; for men, it was an 8 percent increase. Not only was women’s awareness of these events higher than men’s, but their increased awareness leads them to bear a greater “cost of caring” than men (though researchers also noted that “women report higher levels of stress to begin with”).
Moreover, the younger the user, the more aware he or she was of these stressful events, a finding that suggests the youngest generation may be the most amenable to screen-based opportunities for empathy.
The major progressive shift of attitudes about homosexuality in recent decades certainly has more to do with political changes and activism than it does with the Internet. And social media, as any tentative tiptoe through YouTube comments or Twitter posts reveals, is still often a pit of hatred, intolerance and bullying.
But it has gotten better. While the tormentor in Louis C. K.’s scenario may be lacking compassion, perhaps there will be others who see his meanspirited message and, instead of piling on, feel for the victim.