Empathy is defined as the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner according to Miriam Webster. When children develop empathy, as they grow, they rely less on the example of their parents and more on those who they have chosen to spend time with, their peers. (Miklikowska, Tilton-Weaver & Burk, 2022). Miklikowska et al. go on to say that “adolescents befriend peers with similar levels of empathy and that youth whose friends are more empathic increase in empathy over time” (p. 1161).
But who are those people that the youth of today are spending time with? “… the amount of empathy in college students was analyzed for over 14,000 students over the last 30 years. Their results showed that current students surveyed were 40 percent less empathetic than survey results from 1979, and suggested that the lack of emotional connection in social networking sites may be partly to blame.” (Miller & Ribble, 2013, p.138 – 139). These findings of a lack of empathy among those who are more connected are quite worrying, especially as the current middle and high school students are an increasingly online group, with 62% of teens saying they use social media every day , however, only 34% of those teens saying they enjoy social media “a lot” (Rideout et al., 2022). Psychologist Berger suggests that depression linked with social media consumption is partly related to the fact that other people’s curated digital portraits seem far “cooler” than our own lives (2018).
Educators are encouraged to teach their students to carefully “curate their digital profiles” (ISTE standards for coaches, 7d). But what happens when the highly manicured digital portrayals online only show the very best moments? How can students create genuine connections with others when they are only allowing themselves to be perfect online? And if they are encouraged to be more authentic, what are some models for that so that our students can practice this skill safely? Two opposing ideas to combat the “fakeness” of online representations are proposed by the app BeReel and a short vlog by John Green.
BeReel is an app where users are given a 2-minute timer to take an unfiltered photo of whatever they are doing at the time (Cheong, 2022). App users can only see the photos of their friends after they have uploaded their own, and they can only “like” a friend’s post by adding a photo of themselves, with no filters. The way that this app combats perfectly manicured online portraits are two-fold. First, users can only retake their photos once and must consider why they are retaking them: this makes the poster make sure they are managing their time wisely as well as making sure they aren’t always seeking that “perfect” photo. Second, users are asked to share what they are doing at spontaneous times of the day, thereby eliminating the ability only to share the very best things. If you are doing laundry when the timer starts, you share your laundry photo! Normalizing the mundane aspects of people’s lives provides an opportunity to make the people on the other side of the screen more real and thereby increasing our empathy with each other.
John Green, however, suggests that the incomplete picture of the people on the other side of the screen is a feature and not a bug (2021). He encourages his viewers to use the ability to filter out personal or private information to their advantage (safety and comfort) while also asking them to remember that they are only viewing what others want them to see. By increasing the watcher’s understanding of the power of omission, viewers are able to engage better with the content creator’s material at an empathetic level.
Teens and Pre-Teens are more online than ever and are curating their digital portraits every day. They are also consuming more social media content than ever before, and are using the images they see as a baseline for their own self-image. It’s imperative that the discussion around digital footprints includes a conversation about being genuine as well as being safe, for themselves, and those around them.
Berger, M., (2018, November 9). Social media use increases depression and loneliness. Penn Today, https://penntoday.upenn.edu/news/social-media-use-increases-depression-and-loneliness
Cheong, Charissa. (2022, August 2). I tried BeReal, the buzzy photo-sharing app trying to stop people using filters, and after 7 days I was hooked. Insider.https://www.insider.com/what-is-bereal-app-how-does-it-work-2022-4#to-interact-with-other-peoples-posts-you-have-to-get-your-face-involved-6
Green, John. (2021, March 2). What’s not in the frame. [Video], Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZRZuEGuU_es&ab_channel=vlogbrothers
International Society for Technology in Education. (2020). ISTE standards: Coaches. ISTE. https://www.iste.org/standards/iste-standards-for-coaches
Merriam Webster. (n.d.). Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved October 9, 2022, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empathy
Miklikowska, M., Tilton-Weaver, L., & Burk, W. J. (2022). With a Little Help From My Empathic Friends: The Role of Peers in the Development of Empathy in Adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 58(6), 1156–1162. https://doi-org.ezproxy.spu.edu/10.1037/dev0001347
Ribble, M & Miller, T.. (2013). Educational leadership in an online world: Connecting students to technology responsibly, safely, and ethically. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 17(1), 137-45.
Rideout, V., Peebles, A., Mann, S., & Robb, M. B. (2022). Common Sense census: Media use by tweens and teens, 2021. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense. https://www.commonsensemedia.org/sites/default/files/research/report/8-18-census-integrated-report-final-web_0.pdf