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 reduce bullying and to increase empathy in students – and their teachers [1].

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 [2], some kinds of bullying behaviour are actually associated with high levels of cognitive empathy [3]. (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.)

The second is that while programs aimed at building empathy are generally effective, there are a small number of youth who don’t respond to them [4]. This is one reason why although empathy-building is the underpinning of online ethics, it is only one tool in encouraging ethical online behaviour.

For a guide on how to nurture empathy for children of various ages, see the Building Empathy in Children and Teens tip sheet.


[1] David Bornstein. “Fighting Bullying With Babies.” The New York Times, November 28, 2010. <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/08/fighting-bullying-with-babies/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0>
[2] Mihiri Udabage. What Makes Teenagers Stand Up For Bullying Victims, HappyChild.com, February 20, 2013. <http://www.happychild.com.au/articles/what-makes-teenagers-stand-up-for-bullying-victims>
[3] Nancy Willard. Influencing Positive Peer Interventions: A Synthesis of the Research Insight. October 2012. <http://www.embracecivility.org/wp-content/uploadsnew/2011/10/PositivePeerInterventions.pdf>
[4] Nicole Brady. Empathy Work Lost on One in Five Cyber Bullies. Sydney Morning Herald, August 19, 2012. <http://www.smh.com.au/national/empathy-work-lost-on-one-in-five-cyber-bullies-20120818-24f3g.html>

Resources for Youth

Stay on the Path

Stay on the Path: Teaching Kids to be Safe and Ethical Online is a series of resources that aims to promote and encourage ethical online behaviours with young people. The resources include a four-lesson unit on search skills and critical thinking; a self-directed tutorial that examines the moral dilemmas that kids face in their online activities and strategies for helping youth deal with them; and three tip sheets for parents on how to teach kids to be safe and ethical online.

Learn More