The crisis of empathy, and what you can do about it

You may not have heard, but our society is in a “crisis of empathy”.


“What crisis?” you may be thinking. For the best explanation, listen to the original source of this story (only 45 minutes – perfect for cooking dinner):

What is the crisis of empathy? The shortest explanation is that our devices (think: phones, iPads, laptops with messenger apps) are measurably reducing people’s empathy levels and destroying our in-person communication. Don’t stop reading; this is not an anti-technology rant. Devices, texting, Twitter – they’re not inherently bad things, when used in certain ways, but the way that they are used most of the time is destroying our conversations.

Take this quick quiz:

In the last week, how many times have you:

  1. Had your phone on the table during a meal with others?
  2. Pulled out your phone while waiting in line (e.g. at a grocery store, at an airport)?
  3. Looked something up on the internet to resolve a debate in a conversation?

If you’re anything like me, you’ve done all of the above, many, many times in the past week alone. But, you’re probably not convinced that we are really in a “crisis of empathy”, so let’s add some nuance. There are 5 main dimensions to the device-caused crisis: (1) We are losing reflexive “alone time”. (2) We are losing the ability to entertain/think for ourselves. And, because of (1) and (2) and some other factors, (3) we are measurably becoming less empathetic. (4) Devices are destroying in-person conversation. And finally, (5) kids growing up in our device-saturated world are developing empathy much slower. Let’s break it down:

The device I use the most.
The device I use the most.
  1. We are losing reflexive “alone time.” Well, how important is this? According to studies, alone time is very important. When we are able to think undisturbed, we process our days, think creatively, and re-charge our empathic abilities. For me, some of my best ideas come from when I am taking a shower or brushing my teeth – times when I have nothing to do but think. But: our devices are systematically removing these brief times of the day that we might have spent in thoughtful reflection. This is because thinking to ourself is a bit boring – certainly more boring (and perhaps “less productive”) than checking emails, responding to texts, playing Candy Crush, etc. And so, when we are waiting in line at the grocery store, waiting at the gas pump, even stopped at a red light, many of us pull out those devices. We have lost reflexive alone time.
  2. We are losing the ability to entertain/think to ourselves. Because devices are removing those times of the day when we would think to ourselves, we are out of practice and have become bad at entertaining ourselves. Here’s some evidence: 55 college students volunteered to participate in a study where they would give up their devices and sit alone in an empty room for between 6 and 15 minutes. Before the study began, each student was administered an electric shock to their ankle so they could see how painful the shock was. Right after this (but before the study began), 42 of 55 students said that they would pay to avoid getting shocked again. Now, the surprising bit: while they were sitting alone in the empty room, the students were given the option to shock themselves. 43% of the students who had said they would pay to avoid getting shocked again ended up administering themselves an electric shock over the course of being in the empty room. Why did they do this? Because we (or at least, these college students) are so bad at thinking alone that they would rather receive an electric shock than have to think to themselves.

    We are losing the ability to be alone.
    We are losing the ability to be alone.
  3. We are measurably becoming less empathetic. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how Dr. Sherry Turkle has measured empathy – you’ll have to read her book to find that out. But, she has found through her research that device-users are experiencing reduced empathy levels, probably as a result of phenomena like (1) and (2). The good news? This can be reduced; Dr. Sherry Turkle found that, when high school students were sent to a “device-free” summer camp, empathy levels went up after only 5 days.
  4. Devices are destroying in-person conversation. This is one of the big ones. The very presence of a phone affects our conversations. The fact that a phone is visible during a conversation suggests that there exists some potential incoming text or phone call or alert that would be more interesting or important than the physical conversation taking place. The conversation is de-valued; everybody is (perhaps subconsciously) aware of it. OK, you might be thinking, but what about looking things up on a device to enhance a conversation? I thought the same thing (that looking things up would enhance a conversation) until Sherry Turkle talked about this very thing. She quotes a high school student who told his dad, “Daddy, please, stop Googling. I just want to talk to you.” Her point is that conversations are not simply mechanisms to convey facts; conversations are opportunities to explore themes, discuss, and debate. By looking up the primary export of Brazil, we cut short any opportunity for creative debate. We lose the thought exercise. Instead of thinking through  and arguing for different potential primary exports, we find some fact. Why even have a conversation if we are just going to look up facts? We might as well read an encyclopedia.
  5. Lastly, kids growing up in our device-saturated world are developing empathy much slower. I personally have not spent enough time with kids to know much about this, but Sherry Turkle claims that any educator or counsellor probably knows exactly what she is talking about. Apparently, 8-year-olds are acting like 5-year-olds in that they are not able to empathize with others. Not to be mistaken with compassion (caring for others), empathy is simply the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, to understand what another is feeling. That kids who have grown up with devices are developing empathy slower is disturbing. Why would this be happening? Think: parents giving their kids an iPad when the kids are bored instead of forcing the kids to watch adults or interact with each other (which are avenues for learning empathy).
I used to drink coffee like this every morning. I’m moving away from it now, though.

What does this mean for the environment? The crisis of empathy clearly means bad things for our families, our friendships, and our society, but it also means bad things for the environment and marginalized people who depend on it for their livelihoods. A loss of empathy among the privileged folks (including me) who have access to the very devices which cause this loss of empathy could mean that we are less able to understand hardships faced by people whose livelihoods are threatened by environmental harm. Environmental problems disproportionately fall on marginalized people, and a loss of empathy by the non-marginalized could mean less support for regulations that reduce carbon emissions, or regulations affecting the placement of toxic industrial plants, or regulations regarding the acceptance of displaced people from nations overcome by sea level rise.

So, we’re doomed? Luckily, no. Sherry Turkle and Diane Rehm end on a very positive note. We device-users know that our devices are bad, and even kids who have grown up on devices are interested in change. Most people are familiar with problems caused by our devices, and one of the nicest things about this problem is that the solution is largely within our own power. With no further ado:

What you can do about the crisis of empathy:

  • Carve out time in your day to ‘be bored’ and think to yourself. For example, be conscious about not pulling your phone out in line at the grocery store. You will be surprised by what you notice around you.
  • It only takes one person to kill a conversation by being on their phone, for example at a family dinner or in a group of friends at a bar; call this person out. Also, try not to be this person.
  • Create non-negotiable spaces to be device-free (e.g. during dinner, during any in-person conversation). I have made a rule that I can never use a device during a meal, even if I am eating breakfast alone. I can watch Netflix or listen to music while cooking, but while eating I must think to myself.
  • If you have kids, be sensitive to how much you replace face-to-face time with iPads and other devices. And as Sherry Turkle says, “If you don’t teach your kids how to be alone, they’re left knowing how to be lonely”.
  • Think before you “Google” something during a conversation. How much does knowing the fact really contribute to your conversation?
  • Be on the lookout for “face-to-face phobia”; when we become too comfortable emailing, texting, and messaging, we can experience fear of meeting in person or even talking on the phone. We can only fix this through practice.
  • And lastly, be part of the solution. Most people don’t want to be addicted to their devices and most people don’t want their devices to ruin their face-to-face interactions. Bring up this conversation and call out your friends and family for using their devices; you will only be doing the world good.
Apple is not the problem, but we need to think consciously about how we use our devices.