Technology: the never ending and ever evolving subject of many conversations, editorials, studies, and more. Whether it's excitement over the newest iPhone or technological marvel, or debates about the negative impacts it's had on society, technology never ceases to be a popular topic.

One topic that's stood out among the others is how technology like social media impacts children and younger people's mental development. How much of an impact does technology like this have on developing young minds, in regards to empathy?

How does empathy usually develop?

Before diving into how technology impacts empathy development, it's important to understand how it develops in the first place. University of Calgary Associate Sociology Professor Michael Adorjan explained there's no single blanket statement on how empathy develops, but in general it has to do with the people and experiences that surround you, and how your culture and society may or may not promote empathy.

"In cultures that support looking beyond the individual, looking beyond even the immediate family, cultures like that can probably promote empathy in children. And it's like a muscle in that it can atrophy in a culture that doesn't incentivize its development," he said.

"It's sort of like a flower to sunlight. They (children) grow and develop in the way that they're incentivized to. So I think empathy is something that can certainly be readily underscored in childhood, given the right social influence." 

As for how empathy is incentivized, this can range from many things, such as being encouraged to be nice to each other, finding that being more empathetic may lead to new friendships, societal messages about the importance of looking out for each other, and more.

"It's that ability to think beyond yourself and take the role of others. It helps you to take that perspective of others, and I think that's something that parents play a primary role in doing. And then you look at the various social influences like schools, peers, other groups... it's quite a normal thing, just part of that process of maturation." 

While this is an incredible generalization of a topic that could span many studies and articles, the core concept is generally agreed to be that empathy is developed by positive influences and a societal structure around you that promotes it.

How does technology enter the picture?

Adorjan explained that like real life, technology has both negative and positive influences that could impact a young person's mind, so the technology itself doesn't create or solve problems, it's how it's used. However, technology like social media potentially opens the door for young people to have their development stunted.

Adorjan explained social media algorithms are designed to send you content you're interacting with, which could easily send someone down the proverbial rabbit hole.

"If you're clicking on content that is producing particular posts that are racist or xenophobic or putting down a particular person or group of people, you might be recommended more videos in line with that. That can be a major risk factor, seeing one sort of angle of society or what's out there, but it's not the whole picture."

In terms of empathy, an environment like this does not incentivize it, directly stunting or possibly reversing potential development. For example, if a young developing mind is engaging with racist posts and communities, it is instead incentivized to be racist, as the feedback loop from what you're engaging with promotes a lack of empathy.

The veil of online anonymity can also create a lack of empathy, as it's easy to behave in a way you may not in real life, as the tangible consequences of your action may not be readily apparent to you. Online anonymity can create a lack of empathy in the sense that some people aren't thinking about the fact that another real person exists on the other side of the screen.

"Those who are on the receiving end or are victimized and traumatized by bullying in the class might go online to find more power, more agency from the anonymity and the online dynamics who might engage in bullying. In some cases, those who are victims of bullying become bullies." 

While a certain disconnect between how you act online and in real life may exist, Adorjan said the lines have been blurred to the point that we can't consider it as two separate entities. In fact, several streamers have experienced "swatting," an activity where somebody will call authorities and tell them a streamer is a terrorist threat or something along those lines, thus resulting in that streamer's home being stormed by police and/or the SWAT team. An activity like this obviously displays a severe lack of empathy, which Adorjan explained could be because certain online communities cultivate a mentality where a lack of empathy is the norm.

"Depending on how much time and how much emotional energy is spent in some of these online forums, the level of empathy could be well near zero at the time."

How to address the issue

The above examples are just a small sample size of many potential ways empathy can be stunted online, but that doesn't mean technology is purely a place where empathy goes to die. Also online are many supportive groups that promote kindness and empathy, which obviously have positive benefits on a developing mind. In fact, there are some groups that actively work to help people develop empathy in a place where they otherwise might not have.

Adorjan gave an example of this, being Reddit incel groups. Incels are widely known to promote misogynistic views, which of course creates a void in empathy for women. But in these same groups are forums and people reaching out to help incels disidentify with the group. Furthermore, for all the promotion of hatred online, there's an equal amount of people speaking out against it.

At the end of the day though, Adorjan said you can't rely on technology to solve technology's problems. If you're a parent concerned about your child's mental development, it's important to stay in constant communication with your child and monitor their online activity at a distance. The best way to prevent technology from creating a situation where a young person's empathy development is severely stunted is to keep them grounded in the real world, where many positive supports and incentives to promote empathy exist.

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