Social media is killing empathy. Here's how storytelling can save it.

When I hear that empathy as a trait is in decline largely due to social media, I feel despair. And a little panic. Not only because the idea of my kids (now 2 and 5) being on social media freaks the absolute living daylights out of me, but because now, more than ever empathy is emerging as a key skill required for success in the workforce of the future.

Thank goodness there is a solution. And that solution is teaching our kids the timeless art of storytelling.

But before we get to that (and we will, I promise!), here’s some context on the scale of the empathy crisis we face.

Social Media is killing empathy

A 2011 survey conducted at the university of Michigan found that 3 out of 4 college students are 50% less empathetic today than they were 30 years ago, with the steepest decline beginning in 2001 – around the same time that social media was born.

Is it a coincidence? Evidence would suggest not. We’re living in an age that is redefining social currency. Where idealised profiles, ‘like’ buttons, and selfies, the ultimate symbols of narcissism, rule supreme. Where meaningful social interaction is being replaced by a 5 second glance before swiping right or scrolling down, and compassion for human suffering is expressed as a hashtag.

These seemingly innocuous acts are drivers of two key aspects that are resulting in declining levels of empathy.

With rising narcissism comes a diminishing willingness and capacity for empathy.
 A research paper published by the Loyola School of Law in 2014 says “studies have confirmed that narcissism and empathy are antithetical in nature, and as narcissism climbs, the capacity for empathy in young adults and children has taken a steep decline.”

According to Michele Borba, parenting expert, educational psychologist and author of the book UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, we live in the age of the selfie - the ubiquitous symbol of narcissism. But this focus on the self to the exclusion of others is harmful to our children. More than the photos themselves, the idea behind them - that we are the center of our world - is the problem, reflecting a decreased focus on others and a lack of empathy.

Social media culture is increasingly taking time away from face-to-face encounters where empathy is born.

Current social media platforms have removed a level of human connection that detaches us from reality to the point that we can easily forget that we’re interacting with real human beings. Yet interacting with real human beings, connecting and building relationships with depth is where we develop a capacity for empathy. 

Borba, concurs, adding that  “Low levels of empathy are rampant in our culture, and in kids that’s associated with bullying, cheating, weak moral reasoning, and mental health issues, like anxiety and depression.”

Ironically, whilst technology is largely responsible for killing our empathy, it is also driving an unprecedented need for it.

Empathy is a crucial skill for success in the workforce of the future

Automation is on the rise. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs study predicts that 5 million jobs will be lost before 2020 as artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology and other socio-economic factors replace the need for human workers.

Technology, however, has its limitations. It can’t replicate human emotion, empathy. Not only is empathy a critical skill for effective leadership, because it builds trust, but according to Jamais Cascio, one of Foreign Policy magazine’s top 100 Global Thinkers, “The kinds of jobs that are the most difficult to replace with machines are the jobs that depend on empathy and human connection; things machines can’t do reliably and effectively. We’re seeing this happen already -  the jobs that last are the ones that are driven by empathy and human contact.”

So, with technology and social media soaring are we all doomed? Or is there a way to prevent the deterioration of one of our most important human traits, a building block of morality and a basic foundation for a functioning society?

I believe so, and I passionately believe that the answer lies in storytelling.

“Storytelling?” I hear you say. “An antidote to all that? Don’t be ridiculous!” I get it. On the surface it sounds outlandish. But hear me out.

Here's why storytelling solves the empathy crisis

Empathy, as defined by Jacquelyn Quinones, in her TED talk Is technology killing our empathy, “is the ability to imagine yourself as someone else, to think the way they think”.

It’s no coincidence that the definition for storytelling is essentially the same. I think my most uttered phrase in a class of kids is “how do you think that would make them feel? “ and there’s a good reason why.

According to Jeremiah Hammerling and Rita Baghdadi “empathy doesn’t just drive a good story, it is storytelling. The best stories transport us into someone else’s life, if only for a moment. But we won’t go along for the ride unless we empathize with the characters.”

In empathising with characters, whether it be whilst reading a story or writing one, we are transported inside their minds, we see things through their eyes. This enables careful reflection on how others are feeling in a given situation. For kids, this experience is essential. It provides an unparalleled opportunity to exercise and build their empathy muscle.

Joe Bunting, best selling writer and founder of Story Cartel sums it up beautifully when he says “to write fiction, you must develop your capacity to be empathetic. Empathy is so much a part of what the writer does that it would be impossible to get by without it.”

So...

As we hurtle into the future, where technology is increasingly driving the shape of human-to-human interaction, and automation is on an exponential trajectory as a prolific force in industry, maybe its time to look to the past. To an age-old art form whose virtues are as essential today as they were at the dawn of humankind.

Teaching our kids storytelling isn’t a nice to have, it’s a non-negotiable must have if we want them to thrive. Empathy is more than a trait. It’s a skill, and one that will set our kids up to become the future leaders, the future guardians of humankind, and to live in a world where, despite inevitable technological advancement, humans still connect and care.