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How Our Screens Diminish Our Empathy

Sadly, it may just be a sign of the times. A shocking video was recently taken by a group of teens as they watched a man struggle and drown in a local pond. The body of Jamel Dunn was not found for five days. Apparently, it was entertaining.

So instead of taking action, some students are more prone to take videos.

The video was graphically clear. It shows Mr. Dunn, who was 31 years old, flailing in the water as the teenagers laughed and narrated his struggle from the shoreline. One of them used an explicative and called Mr. Dunn a junkie. Another voice told him not to expect any aid: “Ain’t nobody going to help you, you dumb b***h! You shouldn’t have got in there,” the teen says. After a minute of video, Dunn appeared to let out a whimper before going under.

“He just died!” a voice can be heard as the others began to laugh again.

What Ever Happened to Empathy?

I will be the first to acknowledge, this is a strange occurrence. I’m not suggesting it happens every day. I am saying, however, I read stories like this more often than I did in the past. Our organization, Growing Leaders, consistently receives reports from school administrators about bullying, by students who are apathetic as to how their actions impact peers. We’ve been called more than once from a school desiring an “Anti-Bullying Event” on their campus, because a student committed suicide, after bullying incidents left that victim feeling hopeless and alone.

It begs the question: What has happened to empathy?

1. The influence of screens and social media.

When you examine the data, there are distinct parallels between the introduction of social media and the decline in empathy or compassion. The University of Michigan first reported a 40 percent drop in empathy among college students a decade ago, about the same year social media took over student’s lives.

2. Screens produce the crowd effect.

Have you read about the crowd effect? When people are downtown and see someone getting accosted, they respond differently—depending on whether there’s a crowd. If they see a bunch of people around, they assume someone else will do something. When alone, they’re more apt to respond. It seems that screens make us feel like there’s a crowd.

3. Screens separate us from real pain.

We watch murders and robberies on TV. We see criticism take place on Twitter. We watch catastrophic “fails” on YouTube. Somehow, seeing so many tragedies numbs us to the reality of the pain. The screen distances us. What’s more, our mind doesn’t know the difference between a real experience and an imagined one. It’s like a show.

4. Screens have cultivated the priority of appearance.

One of the subtle and sinister outcomes of a world full of portable devices is that people are now far more conscious of how something appears than what it is in reality. We are image conscious: How will this look on Instagram? What will my reputation be if I post this? Catching a video can trump helping a person in need.

If our culture is infiltrated with screens, un-empathetic to the pain or needs of others, we can expect the rise of stories like the videotaped drowning of Mr. Dunn. As ridiculous as it sounds, the higher calling is to capture a story on video than to prevent a tragedy and have nothing to show for it. Further, with so much on-line content available, it will require more and more to “wow” viewers. The end result? The videos need to be more dramatic each year. We foster inattentive surroundings where our goal becomes fighting boredom more than being human.

Michael Bader, D.M.H., writes, “When the environment is inattentive and not empathetic, a child’s stress response system, embedded as it is in the architecture of the child’s developing nervous system (mediators in this system include oxytocin, opiate and dopamine receptors, cortisol levels and parasympathetic nerve pathways), is overwhelmed and many types of psychopathology result.  Higher cognitive functions, including language, can suffer as the brain instinctively relies on more primitive regions to deal with an unresponsive environment.”

One Action Step

After the teens captured the video of the drowning, one of them suggested they call the police to report it. His idea was rejected by the others. The police identified and met with all five teenagers, who ranged from ages 14-18. They reported none of them appeared to show emotion. One policeman confirmed, “What I saw was not remorseful.”

I suggest one action step. Why not discuss this story with the students near you. Ask them if they see any drop in empathy in our society today. Ask them why they believe the teens did what they did—and what can be done to rekindle compassion in an overwhelming world of screens.

“If they can sit there and watch somebody die in front of their eyes, imagine what they’re going to do when they get older?” That was Mr. Dunn’s sister’s question about the teens. I have the same question.


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