Has social media made us less empathetic?

Social media’s perverse influence on our lives can be aptly defined by a quote from Marshall Mcluhan, the Canadian philosopher and media theorist, who said, “We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us.” No tool in recent history has shaped our lives to a greater extent than social media. From incessantly checking our phones every couple of minutes so as to not miss out (social media also created an acronym for it- FOMO, fear of missing out) to increasing our political/confirmation bias, social media has played a big part in it all.

As humans we’re quite a tribal society, and it’s been the case throughout our evolution as a species. From segregation based on geography to color to race to gender to religion, we humans have done it all. So, when social media was first created one of its biggest promises was that exposure to different viewpoints and persons would lift up the curtains, and we’d be less segregated. After all, one of the biggest theories of sociologists and political theorists is that exposure to other people and ideas significantly hinders our natural instinct to expect something nefarious/de-humanizing, and rather we finally see them as just other humans/individuals.  But while that theory has played out well in the past, see, the civil rights movement, and more recently with LGBTQ rights, it’s a theory that hasn’t played out similarly in the digital space. Using the cloak of invisibility that social media provides, we’ve been able to expose to the outer world our inner demons at little or no cost. We can be our worst selves to others knowing that we most likely won’t have to ever see them in person. We can post anything knowing that there isn’t going to be an immediate pushback, at least the sort of pushback with the tendency to embarrass- in person. And thus, rather than humanizing others, social media has had the opposite effect on our society- it has significantly de-humanized our social interactions with our peers. Seeing uncouth behavior on our social media feeds has become a rather habitual occurrence to the extent where most of us have become normalized to it. While there might have been some surprise and pushback to deviant language in the initial years, it has transcended into apathy, and as history teaches, there’s nothing worse for societies than apathy. A recent paper by Christopher Bail, and Lisa Argyle, et al., for the natural academy of sciences (PNAS) corroborates this notion. The PNAS study found that, “While America’s carnivorous pattern is often attributed to echo chambers, our hypothesis builds upon a more recent wave of study that suggests exposure to those with opposing political views may create backfire effects that often exacerbate political polarization.” The study goes on to find that when it comes to the previously held political beliefs, exposure to the other side only strengthened the prior belief, to the extent of .11-.59 standard points. (Bail, Argyle, et al.) This only goes to show that the advent of social media has had a far-reaching effect that hasn’t reached the mainstream masses. The most disappointing thing though might not even be about how we communicate with each other online, but rather how deviant behavior and language has slowly crept in from the digital space into our physical space as well. A study by Sara Konrath at the University of Michigan has shown that as a society we’ve become less emphatic by a whopping 40 percent than our counterparts just twenty or thirty years ago. It’s a shocking revelation that should give each one of us some pause.

Overall, while social media has definitely helped us communicate with our loved ones faster, the quality of our social interactions has slowly but surely deteriorated.  The worrying pattern is that it’s also seeping into how we as a society behave. We have slowly become less understanding, less empathetic and less friendly with our peers. With the advent of automation and many more structural adjustments to our societies to come, this is an alarming trend and we should address it as soon as possible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *