Classroom Technology Opinion

Internet and Empathy, Compassion, and Respect

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 31, 2014 4 min read
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The Internet connects us through email and a plethora of social media. We can reach each other, visibly, at no cost, around the globe, with programs like FaceTime and Skype. Our lives are shared, more easily and more often, sometimes tossing out into the public domain things that previously remained in a private phone call, or in the old days of twenty years ago personal letters or the family photo album on living room coffee table. We comment, email, tweet, post; we watch videos and post pictures. On the other end are people who are family, friends and strangers. Our students do this as well.

People compete for friends and connections. Lives virtually intersect and networks are created for social, business and other interest reasons. For good or bad, people say what they really think, spontaneously, in a few words, often without thinking it through. They reveal a truth otherwise left hidden. But, we wonder if there is a qualitative difference between these virtual relationships of immediacy and face to face relationships. We wonder if they reduce our ability develop and to respond with empathy and compassion.

As our capacity to touch each other’s lives has increased exponentially online, does it include the interpersonal emotional dynamic that exists when we are in the physical company of one another? Could it be that the ease of communicating using these 21st century vehicles makes it easier to communicate and diminishes compassion? Can we mediate the disconnectedness; the illusion that we are invisible and can say anything to anyone without experiencing the dynamics present in face to face relationships? A collective-EVOLUTION article raises the question “Has the Internet Destroyed Empathy & Compassion?” Author Jeff Roberts wrote:

Something I’ve come to notice within my experience at Collective Evolution (CE) and with the world of the internet as a whole is the large sense of disconnect there seems to be between the people and their words. I’ve seen people say some pretty nasty things to one another in the comment sections...

In an article for CNN, Dr. Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan noted:

By observing it in other people, we have our own experience of it, but at an emotional distance. The more we observe terrifying events happening to other people, the more they reinforce our sense of denial and detachment.

Because the Internet can depersonalize communication by creating this detachment, it may be doing little or nothing to engender and develop empathy and compassion in its users. Alternatively, we wonder if the telephone did the same thing and we simply creeped toward our present moment slowly, step by step.

How can we maximize the capacity of this extraordinary communication medium and attend to our ever-increasing need for empathy and compassion to endure as a human speices? While we lead the use of technology as a vehicle for communication, teaching and learning, we need to wrestle with these questions about visibility, empathy and compassion. Because we have become accustomed to adding comments to newspaper articles and blog posts, tweeting reactions to almost anything, we want to consider wisely what is being lost while we advocate for what is being gained. That is, we must pay attention to the dangers involved in distance, in the freedom of anonymity, of being invisible, of not seeing the face of the ones we may be railing against.

We must invest our time and energy in the educator’s responsibility for the social/emotional development of our students and the social/emotional well being of our faculties. While doing so, attending to empathy and compassion must be elevated in order to balance the scales as the depersonalized communication permitted by the internet pulls us away from the very attributes (empathy and compassion) that makes us a human community. These qualities contribute toward the creation of an environment in which success and resilience and respect are engendered. We need all of these.

Our recent guest blogger, Dr. Chris Kukk shared:

...when a person thinks from a compassionate mindset, he or she releases the peptide hormone oxytocin, which then activates the neurotransmitters of dopamine (brain reward) and serotonin (anxiety reduction) contributing to happiness and optimism--two characteristics that contribute to success and resiliency.

We certainly advocate for the use of technology with all of its amazing advantages. And, we have seen empathy and compassion online when people learn of another’s problem and rally in supportive generosity. We have seen people moved by stories of others in need who were called to action. But in general, the creep toward disconnectedness and perceived anonymity may have an unintended long term affect upon the capacity to feel empathy and compassion and to act with resepct. We can intercede by bringing it to our practice and questioning it out loud. Posing the question with students and teachers alike...what would you say differently if you were sitting in a room with this person or if you could comment on a post? It may not develop empathy or compassion. But it can raise awareness of the difference between in person and online communication. Can we ever truly “walk in their shoes” from a computer screen? We don’t know the answer. But we do know the value of developing empathy, compassion, and respect is essential and we need these qualities in our schools and in our country.

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