Empathy in the Virtual World


Within a philosophical context, the writer below explores the hazards of cyberspace on empathy, and the illustration that accompanies the text reveals the crux of Dr. Gorry’s essay:  Is digital technology taking the heart right out of us?  

Author of Born to Learn, Rita Smilkerstein, found in her research that all learning is linked to emotion, and among the digital generation we need to find ways to impart not only academic but social and emotional skills so that we engage both the mind and the heart of students.  This is the precise aim of LifeBound’s books, particularly our text, People Smarts for Teenagers:  Becoming Emotionally Intelligent, which has data-proven results to increase scholastic achievement while promoting qualities like empathy and motivation.

Dr. Gorry postulates that the virtual world has so permeated our conscious and unconscious selves that it might be making us numb to the “real suffering of others.”  The bombardment of so many problems worldwide can diffuse a sense of responsibility to actually do something about the plight of what we see and hear. 

The concept of friendship, for example, has enjoyed a renewed prominence via social networks that have emerged in the last few years, namely Facebook and MySpace.  This is born out of a universal human desire to connect to other people and is perhaps one of the noblest achievements of human culture.  It is in and through our friendships that we grow and develop as human beings.  We should be careful, therefore, never to trivialize the concept or the experience of genuine friendship. It would be sad if our desire to sustain and develop on-line friendships were to be at the cost of our availability to engage with our families, our neighbors and those we meet in the daily reality of our places of work, education and recreation.  Almost any parent of a teenager can give an account of the difficulty students have tuning out their iPods and cell phones and tuning in to their parents or siblings.  If the desire for virtual connectedness becomes obsessive, it may function to isolate individuals from real social interaction while also disrupting the patterns of rest and reflection that are necessary for healthy human development. Even more troubling, social sites have become a breeding ground for cyberbullying and have made it easier for pedophiles to access vulnerable adolescents. 

The digital world demands our attention in part by speeding up the pace of life, and the addictive nature of media multitasking takes away time and energy from something of far more value:  human interaction.  It’s the trap of emergency living, paying attention to the immediate rather than thinking more deeply about things like goals and the quality of our relationships and acting on those impulses to do something bigger than busyness.

Researchers at Stanford University released a report this summer regarding multitaskers of media activities like watching YouTube, writing e-mail and talking on the phone.  What they found is that they are not very good at any of their tasks.  After testing about 100 Stanford students, the scientists concluded that chronic media multitaskers have difficulty focusing and are not able to ignore irrelevant information.

At their best, teaching and learning aren’t purely academic pursuits; they are methods that promote a better planet.  New technologies have tremendous power for good in the world and can be put at the service of humanity to promote tolerance and understanding among communities, especially for those who are exploited.  Here then are serious questions to ponder:

How can we harness the power of technology to foster human interaction rather than compete with it?

What potential of the new technologies can be used to promote human understanding and solidarity, especially for those who are most disadvantaged and vulnerable in our world?

What can educators do to transfer technology in such a way that it fosters empathy rather than detracts from it?


We live increasingly “on the screen,” deeply engaged with the patterns of light and energy upon which so much of modern life depends. At work we turn our backs to our coworkers, immersing ourselves in the flood of information engendered by countless computers. At the end of the workday, computers tag along with us in cellphones and music players. Still others, embedded in video displays, wait at home. They are all parts of an enormous electronic web woven on wires or only air.

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