Phones Up, Empathy Down

Wednesday, 9 October, 2019

Why empathy is on the decrease with our youth and what phones have to do with it

Did you know that empathy can affect our kids’ future health, success, happiness, relationships, and overall well being? It’s also a positive predictor of our children’s success in learning. If you Google empathy, you will find a plethora of articles on big-name companies trying to integrate empathy exercises into their businesses. Forbes urges companies to adopt empathy principles.

We as parents want our children to have empathy. Empathy makes our children better people. Which makes the world a better place. That’s why it’s alarming to see empathy rapidly decreasing in today’s youth while self-absorption is on the rise. Studies show empathy has decreased 40 percent while narcissism has increased 58 percent.

My name is April Whiting. I am a digital wellness educator and the mother to four boys. I spend many hours in schools talking with students about what it’s like to grow up in a heavy tech world. They spend more time communicating through screens than they do face to face. They are losing the ability to read facial cues and have appropriate eye contact. Feelings aren’t learned by looking at screens. When we lose the ability to read facial expressions, we lose empathy.

We lead for being the least mentally healthy nation in the world. Grades are over the top, but we are the loneliest. College students are dropping out at staggering rates. When you ask children what they want to be when they grow up, their answers have changed from policemen and firefighters to “rich and famous” and “YouTube Stars.” Michele Borba, author of the book Unselfie refers to this as the “Selfie Syndrome.” Selfies are all the rage as teens—and people in general—post endless photos of themselves on social media and wait on the edge of their seats for likes and comments of praise. The term selfie has become so popular, Oxford Dictionary chose it as its 2014 word of the year. Selfie Syndrome is altering our children’s offline lives. The condition is slowly eroding our children’s character and killing their empathy.

As empathy wains, things like cyber-bullying and racism increase. Our children are bombarded by cyber-bullies constantly. Unlike when we were young, bullies follow our children home. They sleep in our homes, sometimes in the same room as our children. How? On their phones!

It’s not just our children that are excessively plugged in. 66 percent of children feel their parents are addicted to their phones. As I mentioned earlier I spend a good amount of time in classrooms talking to students. In our group discussions, I always ask the students to raise their hand if they feel their parents spend too much time on their phones. The majority of hands always go up. Emotions start to join our conversation. Tears flow. These children are begging to be seen, heard, and loved. We as parents must take a step back and look at our own technology habits. When our children are talking to us do we put our phones down, put our eyes up, and listen? Or do we give them half our face while our cell phones cover the other half?

We must create time to unplug as a family and create meaningful experiences that cultivate empathy. A few opportunities to unplug as a family include:

1. Device-free Dinners

Family dinners provide an opportunity to strengthen ties and build better relationships. Studies show that children who have family dinner often have better mental health and are less likely to use drugs. I recommend dinner tables have a basket that all devices go in during dinner. All devices—Mom and Dad’s, too. That email can wait! You can add a little fun by saying the first person to grab their device is on dish duty!

2. Central Charging Station

Choose a curfew for your devices. It’s important not to let children take their devices into their bedroom all night. Not only is it affecting their sleep habits, this is when they are most likely to make poor choices with their devices.

3. Create More Unplugged Moments

Are you creating opportunities as a family to unplug? Play a board game, throw a football, take a family walk. Read books with your kids—books raise empathy, not iPads. Creating these opportunities helps decrease your child’s screen time naturally, as well as yours!

Empathy is a verb. It needs to be active, stretched and exercised like a muscle. The more unplugged moments our children have, the more healthy emotional literacy they will have. Don’t do nothing just because you can’t do everything!

April Whiting is a certified digital wellness educator. For more information and resources, visit April’s website www.restoringsocialjoy.com and www.commonsensemedia.org.

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