Jerry Seinfeld said, “We’ve fallen into a trap of ever widening orbits of contact, and there is a total disregard for the present moment.”
As Seinfeld does, he captures the world today in one poignant quip. We have people on our LinkedIN accounts, friends on our Facebook accounts, FitBit friends, Instagram buddies, ad infinitum. How many of those people do we actually know and connect with in person?
It is of great concern to me as a parent and family therapist that the development of empathy may indeed be stunted by our overwhelming reliance on social media. Empathy, attunement, and real-felt human connection are best developed in an environment in which there is eye contact and consistent engagement. Nuances in communication and psychological cues are best understood in person.
Because technology is here to stay, and has enhanced our lives in many ways, there is much research being conducted about the impact of technology on emotional growth. Is the development of empathy and human connection within a multi-tasking world possible? Does connecting with others via social media make people feel more empathic, or less? Well, it turns out that in addition to concerns about bullying, parents have reason to believe that social media could be impacting the emotional development of their children in other ways. As an article in The New York Times “Found on Facebook: Empathy” points out, many recent studies are attempting to understand the correlation between technology and people’s capacity for empathy.
Some make the argument that increased screen time has decreased people’s capacity for empathy. This viewpoint is supported by a University of Michigan study showing a direct correlation between a spike in online communication in college students after 2000, and a significant decrease in empathy. However Dr. Rosen, a research psychologist at California State University in Dominguez Hills, argues the opposite. He claims there is a new style of empathy playing out, wherein people are experiencing more of others’ lives as a result of social media which results in a 13% increase in awareness for women and an 8% increase of awareness in men.
Which begs the question: Does awareness equate to empathy?
Sure, Facebook gives users the opportunity to connect with more people, and even more people with a greater diversity of life-experiences, but this does not mean that they create better or more involved connections as a result. I would even argue that the abundance of opportunity for connection makes creating meaningful ones increasingly challenging. From the perspective of quality over quantity, even in this age of increased digital-communication, face-to-face interaction remains the gold standard for meaningful connection.
When it comes down to it, face-to-face connection incorporates the psychological cues needed to create feelings of empathy, in a way that online communication simply cannot. Here’s how:
Being present: This is perhaps our biggest challenge. When talking to people, stop multi-tasking. Silence your phones, put them away, and don’t check your e-mails and texts. Give yourself technology-free time to communicate every day – it’s a gift.
Eye contact: This is perhaps the biggest differentiator between connecting in person versus online, and also a factor that distinguishes individual connections (i.e. with personal friends) versus acquaintances or even celebrities whose stories we read online. The individual nuances in communication that are created by eye contact and inspire empathy and cannot be replicated online. Eye contact is an access to your feelings, validation, and engagement. It cannot be replaced!
Consistency in relationships: Empathy in relationships is not transactional, but rather built over time. This requires consistent and repetitive engagement with people rather than fleeting moments that occur sporadically at random intervals. In order to fully create a connection, there needs to be a trajectory of growth and development in the relationship—a sense that together we’ve made it from “here” to “there. This progression can happen in online platforms, but profound emotional growth, the glue that keeps a relationship together, is rooted in face-to-face engagement.
In our multi-tasking, technological age, it is no surprise that there has been a resurgence in the value of talk therapy. We all need to be heard. We all need to be listened to. Yes, you have a lot of Facebook friends, but are you really taking care of your present emotional self? In an age of communication in which connecting in person has become less frequent, the lack not only becomes part of the problem, but also a very significant aspect of the solution.