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The Case for Margins in a Student’s Life

I’ve noticed a subtle pattern in college and high school students. I wonder if you’ve seen it too. Over the past year, I’ve marveled at what kids find humorous. At times, I’m startled at the misfortunes — even “fails” — that kids watch on YouTube and find funny. Recently, I formed an informal focus group of twenty-year olds and asked about their sense of humor. (I will admit I have a bit of a warped sense of humor myself.) I inquired, however, if they have noticed what they laugh at most.

photo credit: via photopin (license)

photo credit: via photopin (license)

After evaluating the subject, every student, without exception, agreed: “We are now laughing at what kids might have cried about ten years ago.” Without thinking, we’re now entertained at a kid getting bullied on camera, at someone becoming the victim of an accident or crime, or even at edgy comments made by comedians on the Justin Bieber Roast, dropping “N” words and “F” bombs dozens of times at someone else’s expense. The needle has moved.

Now, please understand that I recognize the shock value of this content. It creates a buzz. It differentiates. I also realize adults started this, not our kids. Society seems to be wandering into new territory when it comes to racy remarks or capturing pitiful or shameful behavior on video. But for me, it gives whole new meaning to Socrates words: The unexamined life is not worth living. What’s happening to us?

Has Empathy Become a Lost Friend?

Over the past five years, I’ve noticed a drop in empathy among the students I teach. And I’m not alone. According to a University of Michigan study, today’s college students are not as empathetic as college students from the 1980s or ’90s. The study, presented to the Association for Psychological Science, analyzed data on empathy among almost 14,000 college students over the last 30 years.

“We found the biggest drop in empathy after the year 2000,’ said Sara Konrath, a researcher at the UM Institute for Social Research. ‘College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait.”

I met Meredith at a recent Teachers As Leaders event. She’s an educator who shared this insightful video explaining why we’re seeing this drop in empathy. She reminded me of how little time we’ve given our kids to push “pause” and think, or wonder, or reflect. And without that quiet time, empathy doesn’t thrive… it hides.

Where Has Empathy Gone to Hide?

The truth is, social media has stolen our margins in life, and unless we help students become intentional about technology, they can become slaves to the digital world of noise, clutter, and information. And the problem isn’t just behavioral — it’s chemical.

Waiting for that “ping” on our phones is actually addictive, neuroscientists tell us, and when messages come in, our bodies respond by sending doses of dopamine through our systems. Sites that house endorphins are all over the body, but dopamine is housed mainly in the midbrain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that makes a stressed body feel good. Unlike endorphins, which mostly block pain and bring in a little euphoria, dopamine lends a helping hand. It signals the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. So when a text comes to us, when someone “likes” our post on Facebook, or when a photo we posted on Instagram is well received, it’s fulfilling. The good news is, it makes us happy; the bad news is, we may find it difficult to live without the addiction of that external “happy” ping. We become preoccupied with the search for our own happy feelings, failing to feel other’s happiness or unhappiness.

Making Time for Margins

The problem is, in our culture today, we can unwittingly live for the ping of social media likes or text messages and never experience the solace of silence or solitude. In short, this constant stimulation removes any time for reflection — time to think one’s own thoughts, time to form one’s identity without borrowing or copying others.

Here is what’s happening to our brains.

When neuroscientists examine the human brain during times on social media, they notice that the portion of the brain that develops empathy is dormant. Why? Empathy is not developed in our brains when there is no margin for reflection, daydreaming, or assessing ourselves and others.

As much as I appreciate our ability to connect through technology today, empathy is only learned when external media is not stimulating the brain. We must be still to reflect. Without this, empathy shrinks. Even bullying goes unchecked by our normal sense of morality because we never stop to evaluate what it might do to the recipient. Margins offer time to reflect.

How Can We Help Students Recover?

Here are four simple steps we can employ to help students navigate this challenge:

1. Stop and think.
Set boundaries or special times when phones are not allowed. Explain the research of this article and agree on the need for margins in the calendar to think or reflect.

2. See all sides.
Now you have an environment where critical thinking can develop. Converse to help students see various sides of an issue or situation. Help them feel what others feel.

3. Sense and evaluate.
For empathy to grow, students must draw conclusions. While all issues aren’t black and white, we must foster convictions about justice, compassion and ethics in them.

4. Say and show what you believe.
Finally, offer opportunities for them to speak out or demonstrate their perspective. Once one person takes a stand, others have permission to do so as well.

Tomorrow, we’ll examine the benefits of margins in our lives. In the meantime, what are your thoughts on this issue?


  1. Danielle Dustin on May 11, 2015 at 10:24 am

    I especially identified with what you shared about waiting for the ping of social media and this leading to a lack of self-reflection because I was just thinking about this the other day. As a full-time employee and new mother, I find myself often looking at Facebook or Twitter instead of reading a book and reflecting on the day because it’s easy, doesn’t take my effort, and I’m tired. But one of the side effects that I’ve noticed is that I have begun to lose touch with my own thoughts about things, and the ability to be creative (think outside of what I see posted).

  2. Katie Stanford on May 12, 2015 at 12:10 pm

    I completely disagree with this article. We have lost our empathy, but as a survival tactic. Children of the nineties grew up in a time when inequality was being swept under the rug. We were avoiding talking about racism and sexism and every child was given a trophy for participation. There was such a focus on us being the same and then the internet hit. As the generation that is always on the internet, our access is so immense, that it is impossible to see that we are equal. To hear that girls in africa have been kidnapped in africa, planes have gone down in germany, bombs have gone off in the middle east all in the same day, and this type of information hits us everyday. We have had to accept that there is nothing we can do about it. For those who do take time to reflect on the world, suicide is the second biggest killer of my generation.

    • Mohsin Khan on May 12, 2015 at 2:16 pm

      I agree w/ you, I believe we have lost our empathy as a survival tactic but I think social media is still the one to blame bc of how things are portrayed on social media. instead of having shows like “Ridiculousness” we could have a show that follows people going to Africa & building a well or giving food to the hungry. They’re world is our world too. At least then a few people may gain some awareness to issues like suicide & empathize w/ others. I don’t understand why we don’t identify as one world. Instead, all we know is woman crush Wednesday’s & how big your mum is. Our generation is too selfish. You’re right the Internet is crazy now, all we have to do is Google something if we don’t know it, but it’s what you’re googling that makes the difference.

    • Tim Elmore on May 29, 2015 at 8:35 am

      I appreciate the reasons you list for a lack of empathy in a student’s life. I not only agree—I have written loads on this same thought, probably more than you’d care to read. There’s no doubt the younger generation is overwhelmed by all the noise and clutter. But to say you completely disagree with the article’s conclusion seems humorous. I can’t see how your observations outweigh neuroscience. Brain scientists are the ones who conclude that without margins in our day, the portion of our brain that develops empathy does not fully develop. Actually, your thoughts and their research are not mutually exclusive. Thanks for weighing in, but may I suggest you process the original research?

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The Case for Margins in a Student’s Life