Empathy is at the heart of ethics. In order to develop a sense of right and wrong that goes past just being afraid of punishment or hoping for a reward, we have to be able to put ourselves in another person’s shoes.
While empathy has many elements, one important part is what’s called “perspective taking” – imagining what someone else is thinking or feeling: Roots of Empathy, a Canadian program that brings babies and parents into classrooms to help students develop and practice perspective taking, has been shown to increase pro-social behaviour, decrease aggression and increase empathy.[i]
There are two important things to note about empathy. One is that there are actually two kinds of empathy, affective empathy – when we share another person’s joy, worry or sadness – and cognitive empathy, which is the ability to identify how someone is feeling and guess how something will make them feel. While affective empathy is connected to positive behaviour such as standing up to bullying,[ii] some kinds of bullying behaviour are actually associated with high levels of cognitive empathy.[iii] This doesn’t necessarily mean that a high level of cognitive empathy makes someone more likely to be a bully, only that some kinds of bullying require cognitive empathy to be effective.
Children first show signs of empathy through emotional components because babies reflect the emotions that they see around them. It has been proven that babies as young as 18 hours old have shown responsiveness to other infants in distress, thanks to mirror neurons. As children get older, cognitive empathy, mentioned above, starts to supplement the emotional empathy they currently hold.[iv]
The second thing to note about empathy is that while programs aimed at building empathy are generally effective, there are a small number of youths who don’t respond to them.[v] This is one reason why although empathy-building is the underpinning of online ethics, it is only one tool in encouraging ethical online behaviour. As Mary Gordon, CEO of Roots of Empathy states, “empathy is caught, not taught”[vi] and therefore children learn by example, whether that is online or offline.
Unfortunately, communicating through digital media like social networks can create an “empathy trap” that keeps us from feeling empathy in situations where we normally would. That’s because we don’t see and hear the things that usually trigger empathy in us, like body language, facial expression, tone of voice or eye contact. Online platforms like video sites and social networks are designed to bring us content that we’ll react strongly to, which can make it harder to keep your cool.
What that means is that we have to make a special effort to remind ourselves to be empathetic online. Here are some tips that can help our kids – and us – do that:
- Remember that the people we talk to and play with online are real people. Even if you don't know them offline, try to imagine a person sitting next to you before you say or type anything. Research has found that a lot of conflict online comes from people not seeing the cues that indicate how others are feeling.[vii]
- Always assume the best about the other person: because of those missing empathy cues, our instinct is to interpret digital interactions much more negatively. For the same reason, you should only use sarcasm online if you’re sure the other person will understand you.[viii]
- Don't respond right away. When something happens that gets you upset, take some time to let the first rush of anger or fear fade away.
- Try using active listening and framing what you say as your opinion. You can say things like “It sounds like you’re saying that…” or “What I’m hearing from you is…” and “What I feel is…”
- If you can, talk things out in person rather than online. Remember that other people can't tell how you're feeling online either, so it's easy for drama to blow up.
- Talk to your friends and family about how you're feeling. Kids consistently say that just having someone listen to them is one of the most effective ways of dealing with online conflict.[ix]
- If you can't talk to someone you know, you can turn to helplines like Kids Help Phone (www.kidshelpphone.ca).
- Don't ask your friends/posse to back you up. Research suggests that getting the same message over and over again – even if it's from your friends taking your side in an argument – can make angry feelings a lot more intense.[x] It can also make the drama spread and turn into a much bigger conflict.
- Keep an eye on how you're feeling! It's hard to make good decisions when you're mad, scared or embarrassed. If your heart is racing or you're feeling tense, it's time to get offline for a while. Everyone has different ‘clues’ that tell them how they’re feelings, like pain in your stomach or tightness in your chest, so learning to recognize those can help to communicate more mindfully online and offline.[xi]
For a guide on how to nurture empathy for children of various ages, see the Building Empathy in Children and Teens tip sheet.
[i] Santos, R. G., Chartier, M. J., et al. (2011). Effectiveness of school-based violence prevention for children and youth: Cluster randomized field trial of the Roots of Empathy program with replication and three-year follow-up. Healthcare Quarterly, 14, 80-91.
[ii] Udabage, M. (2013). What Makes Teenagers Stand Up For Bullying Victims, HappyChild.com. Retrieved from http://www.happychild.com.au/articles/what-makes-teenagers-stand-up-for-bullying-victims
[iii] Willard, N.(2012). Influencing Positive Peer Interventions: A Synthesis of the Research Insight. Retrieved from http://www.embracecivility.org/wp-content/uploadsnew/2011/10/PositivePeerInterventions.pdf
[iv] Walsh, E (2019) How children develop empathy. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/smart-parenting-smarter-kids/201905/how-children-develop-empathy
[v] Brady, N. (2012) Empathy Work Lost on One in Five Cyber Bullies. Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from http://www.smh.com.au/national/empathy-work-lost-on-one-in-five-cyber-bullies-20120818-24f3g.html
[vi] Walsh, E (2019) How children develop empathy. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/smart-parenting-smarter-kids/201905/how-children-develop-empathy
[vii] Voggeser, B. J., Singh, R. K., & Göritz, A. S. (2018). Self-control in online discussions: Disinhibited online behavior as a failure to recognize social cues. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 2372.
[viii] Laubert, C., Parlamis, J. Are You Angry (Happy, Sad) or Aren’t You? Emotion Detection Difficulty in Email Negotiation. Group Decis Negot 28, 377–413 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10726-018-09611-4
[ix] Youth Voice Project. http://stopbullyingnow.com/the-youth-voice-project/
[x] Englander, E.K. Bullying and cyberbullying: what every educator needs to know. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Education Press, 2013.