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on Leading the Next Generation


Why Empathy is Declining Among Students and What We Can Do

As we keep our ear to the ground, we continue to hear reports that emotional intelligence—and specifically empathy—is spiraling downward among kids. The sociology department at the University of Michigan, led by Dr. William Axinn at the Population Studies Center, tells us that college students today are approximately 40% less empathetic than they were just ten years ago. That’s quite a drop. I find it quite strange that in a generation more connected to each other than ever, young adults find it increasingly difficult to feel compassion toward each other.

Why is that?


photo credit: danielfoster437 via photopin cc

Let me remind you of the realities in their world.

1. Screen time

As screen time goes up, empathy goes down. Follow it. You will find that the more a student is in front of a video, computer or phone screen their level of empathy for people drops. Cognitive understanding is at an all-time high, but to feel the pain of others emotionally may just be at an all-time low.

Your response: Balance screen time with face-to-face time and explain it. For every hour your kids spend watching a screen, they should spend equal time with people.

2. Information Overload

Between commercial messages, texts, emails, Facebook posts, Instagrams, YouTube videos, etc, a student today receives about 1,000 messages every day. It’s too much information; students are forced to develop filters in their brains to screen out data. Sadly, content that is emotionally expensive often doesn’t make the cut.

Your response: Talk about this reality with your students and let them “own” how they must filter out unnecessary information so they can digest what really matters.

3. Consequential Behavior

Kids have grown up in a world where mistakes or tragedy they witness often doesn’t carry consequences. They see a friend commit a crime, or cheat on a test, but get off easy. They see people get shot on TV or on a violent video game but it doesn’t mean anything. This desensitizes kids and makes them emotionally uninvolved.

Your response: The next time a student fails, be sure they feel the consequences. It’s a reality check. Talk over the long-term unintended price tag of failure.

4. Virtual Reality.

I’ve said this for years. Students have lots of experiences, but many are virtual. To witness something on a YouTube video that lasts two minutes and can be shut off just doesn’t enlist the emotions of a viewer. It’s a squirt of data. Herbert Simon said, “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

Your response: Take your students to experience poverty or disease in a homeless shelter or a cancer ward. Nothing like “touching the real thing” to cultivate empathy.

5. Role Models.

Sometimes, students fail to develop empathy because they see a generation of adults lead with a jaded, cynical attitude. We are all wary of being taken advantage of or being conned, so we keep our guard up. Because we don’t want to be “victims” we prevent ourselves from feeling what true victims feel.

Your response: Be intentional to talking over current events, like school shootings or victims of natural disasters and share your feelings about them. Model empathy.

I am just getting this conversation started. What would you add to this list? Leave a comment.


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  1. Martha on February 20, 2013 at 10:48 am

    I think one of the reasons our Learn and Serve program is so successful is that many students are looking for that real connection with people. Our students may work at a local food bank, food kitchen, after school programs, in homeless shelters and schools helping teachers and students. This type of service is a requirement of Niagara University and of some classes, but it is also rewarding to many students. That face to face exposure to children and poverty and suffering opens students’ eyes to the larger world that they are part of. They also find joy in others’ accomplishments and success. So while the feelings may be strong and they can be positive and negative, they’re usually shared with other students so they’re not dismissed or filed away. This kind of service can begin with families spending a holiday helping at a food kitchen, preparing or serving meals or volunteering at a local shelter or fundraising for a special cause. It makes face to face feel good.

  2. justme on February 21, 2013 at 7:20 pm

    Great content, but can you please change “You’re Response” to “Your Response” to make it less distracting? 😉

  3. Sophia on February 25, 2013 at 9:06 am

    Narcissism encouraged in media, Parents preoccupied with material things.

  4. Ryan on May 23, 2014 at 8:48 pm

    This is very enlightening. Our students just received Google Chrome Books which are fantastic. Kids can research, write, interact with teachers, and even play games that have thus far eluded our school’s filters without even having to sign out a computer lab. Since the students first got the laptops my classes have been hear-a-pin-drop silent. At first I thought, “This is awesome!” But I’ve come to realize that kids are just way too happy to put headphones on and disappear within themselves and their computer. As we learn how to best utilize these extremely valuable educational tools, we also have to set aside times when they are to not be used. Thanks Tim, your words were eloquent and timely as usual!

  5. Tim Spiker on September 10, 2014 at 10:12 am

    This has a critical impact on the development of tomorrow’s leaders.

    Empathy is a hallmark of effective leaders. It connects followers to leaders. It also plays a key role in fostering humility which is both attractive and potent when found in leaders. This research shows that parents who want to develop the leadership potential within their children have yet another culture battle on their hands.

    This research also reminds us that organizations like Growing Leaders are sorely needed — to teach us these things and to help us deal with them. Thanks for the posting, Dr. Elmore.

    • Tim Elmore on September 12, 2014 at 1:08 pm

      Thank you, Tim. Honored to have you join the discussion on this post.

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  7. […] There are great books and articles about this topic. It’s a hot word right now–that’s how much things have changed that we actually talk about empathy here and here. […]

  8. […] I blogged about the drop in empathy among students today. Quite frankly, bullying is up because empathy is down. My research tells me that heavy screen […]

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Why Empathy is Declining Among Students and What We Can Do