Social Media & the Empathy Deficit

A couple of Saturday's ago we woke up to the news that Paris, the city of love and lights, had been recklessly attacked.  Death tolls were rising by the hour and there was much speculation about who was responsible.  As I trawled through my usual mid-morning updates on the usual social media suspects (Twitter, Insta, Facebook) I followed the hashtags #prayforparis, #parisattacks etc and saw the outpouring of grief, shock and anger laden by so many.  I also saw (on those hashtags) people beginning to upload pictures of themselves in Paris.  Really? I thought. Is now the best time to carefully select your best Paris selfie and stick it up on facebook? Stupidly, I weighed in.

I made a comment on social media about how we should probably be lamenting the tragedy instead of uploading pictures of ourselves in Paris and (quite rightly) got a mixed response.  Some people agreed, some were paranoid that I was having a go at them, and some really disagreed - annoyed that I was policing people's heartfelt reactions.  I tried to clarify, the thread went on, people went back and forth, I had various sideline conversations via private messages etc and eventually just made a decision to delete the entire conversation because I realised this:  social media does not have the capability to hold emotion well.

DeathtoStock_Creative Community3In this case, the whole thing became unhelpful, and it was my fault for hosting it.  I am not the kind of girl to shy away from hot topics online but more and more lately I have been learning to pick my online battles carefully.  When emotions are charged, they do not translate well on social media.  

When emotions do not translate well, we misunderstand, we calculate what we want to calculate, we react and nobody wins.  Nobody proves their point well, nobody changes their mind about anything and nobody leaves feeling heard or respected.

This incident and related thoughts were compounded by a profound podcast I listened to a week later on Good Life Project - an interview that Jonathan Fields hosts with researcher Sherry Turkle (what a fun name!) on what technology, phones and social media are doing to empathy and the human condition.

It floored me, if I'm being honest.  It made me cry, it made me cringe and it hit me deep in the knower that what she was saying was true. When we live and communicate more and more in a digital world, and place increasingly less value on the art of real-life conversation it has massive detrimental impacts on our well-being.

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Some of Sherry's research and insight that stood out to me in particular were:

+  that if we go out for coffee/meals with loved ones and have our phones on in eyeshot, we are less likely to have any depth of conversation with those loved ones than if our phones were out of sight.  The temptation to scratch the itch of phone-checking draws us and distracts us away from deeper connection with the people around us.  OUCH.

+  that texting, PM'ing etc instead of talking and hearing each other's voices is reducing our ability to be empathic because we cannot properly interpret each other's real emotion and our brains disconnect from the REAL person behind the screen.

+  that communication online is reducing our ability to be vulnerable (which further research has shown to be an essential element of being able to live wholeheartedly) because we can so easily control and manipulate what is discovered, known and shown about ourselves.  This vulnerability reduction also connects to empathy reduction because when we control what we put out there, we begin to expect perfection from each other instead of being able to accept and acknowledge each other's natural flaws.

+  that because of constant and instant communication, we are living in and raising a generation that will find it difficult to be secure with solitude, and will therefore have a limited understanding of self.  SCARY.

+  that when we are consumed with online communication rather than in-person communication, we lose the sharpness of collaboration and the spontaneity of creativity and ideas.

+  Turkle says "Technology doesn’t just change what we do, it changes who we are." and claims to not be anti-technology, but PRO-conversation.  I kind of like that.

This information, these studies and this research has massive implications on our wellbeing and our ability to really know, understand and empathise with ourselves and each other.  I was massively challenged by what I heard and what I've since been reading up on about how our further disconnect might actually make us less tolerant and more skeptical of each other.

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Some things I am working on putting in place to counteract and try to claim back my own wellbeing around online activity:

+  No phones at the table.  This has been a rule in our house for a while now, but has been taken much more seriously since Dave and I both listened to that podcast and had some honest conversations with each other.  Phones, iPads and laptops have to be out of the room when we sit down to eat as a family.

+  As much as possible, arrange meetings for work to be in person or on skype.  I was really taken aback by the idea that we lose our ability to feed off each other's creativity and insight so drastically when we move away from flesh and blood conversations.  Sure, there are many times when an email convo will suffice for organising and communicating, and SURE, it frees us up time-wise, and SURE sometimes meetings are a drag but for the collaborative work that we do at Freedom Acts that involves heart and soul issues - person to person communication is essential.

+  Similarly - free up more time to talk/skype/facetime with the people we love.  I don't want conversation to feel like a drag.  I don't want to be the person that avoids answering their phone and would rather text because it takes too much of my energy.  I want to re-cultivate the deeper connection that comes with talking to the important people as much as possible.  Even if it is just a stolen few minutes during the day, hearing each other's voices - the nuances, the tones, the emotion, is so much more healthy for our relationships than one dimensional words on a screen.

+  Create distance when necessary.  Unfollow.  Pick battles with wisdom.  Refrain from engaging in conversations that are going nowhere fast (have the hop-topic conversations in person with people you trust - you don't have to agree, but at least you can trust your opinions will land safely).  Do not bite to passive-aggressive online behaviour.  Protect your heart.  I've learned this the hard and painful way but can honestly say it is more than healthy to know when to step back.  Creating distance from toxic online behaviour does not make you cold or frosty, it makes you sensible.

+  Maximise the good.  Utilise the best bits; the community building stuff, the campaigning, the information sharing, the positivity, the thoughtful, the generous.

So I wonder what you think?  Are you, like me, worried about what online communication is doing to the human condition?  Have you thought much about it in this way?  Have a listen to Sherry Turkle's interview and then maybe let's chat some more about it.  In person, preferably of course...