Is technology destroying boys’ ability to develop empathy?

Empathy is a skill which boys learn – like any other. It is based on emotional literacy, learning to understand their own and others’ emotions and reactions to situations – feeling what others are feeling.

Many researchers blame the rise of our tech-driven society for the downfall of empathy. Kids are not seeing adults show empathy via text messages or emails and therefore, struggle to understand how to show it themselves.

Cue educational psychologist Dr Michele Borba’s book “Unselfie: Why empathetic kids succeed in our All-About-Me-World” about the importance of empathy, why kids are struggling to build and show it and how to help children learn how to develop it.

Empathy in its most basic form is the ability to put you in someone else’s shoes – to see and try to comprehend their perspective of a situation. It is a vital skill for young people to learn, enabling them to connect with others on an emotional level, to be involved and help someone selflessly. In our world of online bullying, mental health issues and disconnection of face-to-face conversations, parents need to make an effort to teach their kids the importance of “old fashioned” communication in relation to developing empathetic skill.

Dr Borba says there are many reasons why kids of today struggle to develop empathy and emotional literacy;

  • Expectations of genders differ: stereotypical views of men and boys lead to the belief boys should not express their emotions – as it shows weakness. Girls tend to be better at developing emotional literacy because they are encouraged to speak about emotions more than boys.
  • Too “plugged in”: a key to developing emotional literacy is face-to-face communication. One-way interactions with technology do not give children opportunities to view expressions, reactions and feelings of others – via facial expressions, body language, voice volume and tone etc.
  • Too “distracted”: by technology, work, other family members or commitments. Parents struggle to maximise one-on-one face-to-face time with their children because of other happenings.

Dr Borba says society as a whole has devalued empathy in recent years and as a result empathetic skills have “plummeted”, with self-promotion and self-branding leading the demise among young people.

However, she takes a hands-on approach to tackling the problem – offering readers her nine basic habits throughout the book to help children navigate ethical challenges and emotional “minefields” in their lives.

The first four are developed in young children as fundamentals of empathy skills, including; emotional literacy (understanding their own and others’ feelings), moral identity (developing their own values and idea of integrity), perspective (putting themselves in others’ shoes), and moral imagination (using art and media as sources of positive inspiration).

Though focusing on the impact technology and our wired world has on the development of empathy in children, it is not the only cause of concern raised in Dr Borba’s book.

She also sees the changing nature and demands of everyday life of families as reasoning behind the “seismic shift” in skill development. From longer work hours to media coverage of horrific world events – these factors influence parents’ ability to model empathy to their children and teach them “how to be kind to others”.