- the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Empathy is one of those terms most easily defined by its opposite: someone with a lack of empathy—someone who is unable to share another’s feelings—is classified as a sociopath; a stranger, an outcast; the serial killers that so often appear on the crime dramas of daytime television. If no one had empathy we would be unable to connect with one another and to develop a sense of family or community that is so important to us surviving as healthy social beings. Each man truly would be an island, and humanity would be an archipelago—at best.
But how do we gain empathy? Since the inception of humans—whenever we as a species developed the ability to distinguish ourselves from the other apes—empathy has been a crucial difference between us and lesser animals, and the way that we have gained it has always been the same: babies grow up together, play together, and watch the adults raise them. We learn from how others react to our actions. When a child hits his playmate—whether by accident or malicious intent—he can see how the pain affects the victim. He sees the tears well up in his eyes. That sadness, or anger, or fear that the victim is feeling is apparent on his face. From a biological standpoint, the mirror neurons in the perpetrator’s mind begin to fire, and the physical reaction on the other’s face is translated into an emotional response that can be related to. Learning empathy is an incredibly personal experience, and proximity is crucial. Being face to face with our peers is of the utmost importance, but that is an experience that happens less and less these days. Sure Snapchat and Facetime have made it so that no one goes more than an hour without seeing their friends’ faces (…or some part of their anatomy), but that does nothing to make up for the dearth of interpersonal communication that children routinely experience as part of their upbringing nowadays. More and more young kids are spending more and more time on their computers, or their parents’ iPhones (or their iPhones) instead of interacting with each other. While there is undoubtedly an upside to having kids constantly tuned in to the internet—a thumbs length away from Wikipedia and Google and the infinite mass of information therein—the obvious downside is that spending too much time with eyes locked onto LCD screens is taking away from the valuable time that kids need to be spending with one another.
The most clearly nefarious result of this negative trend is cyber-bullying. When the internet was given to geeky computer nerds (they gave it to themselves, really), they created the amazing production potential of tools like search engines. When the internet was discovered by artists, they found ways to share images and videos and create even innovative pieces of graphic art. When the internet fell into the hands of middle schoolers, though, they created new inventive ways of picking on each other. (There are doubtlessly a multitude of theses to be written on how we utilize the internet is an accurate representation of who we really are). I will not go into the unseemly details of how kids harnessed the power of the internet to tease one another; this has been well documented in the last few years by terrible news stories from around the country and can be easily accessed by any cursory search. It is suffice to say that it is a terrible scourge, and one that was only recently created. Bullying is nothing new of course, and some may argue that kids being teased online (or harassed, or threatened) is not as bad as being physically assaulted or maligned in person. That argument may have some merit, but the way that cyber-bullying is far worse than its less technological predecessor is in how it relates to empathy—or the lack of it. Cyber-bullies never see the face of their victims and therefore never learn the full extent of the damage they do with their attacks. Empathy is not garnered, and the anonymity of the internet brings out the most awful depths of childhood creativity. Sociopaths are generally considered to be born, not made, but the effects of cyber-bullying on attackers are nearly as terrible as those on the victims; the former is dehumanized as the latter is persecuted.
So are Millennials without empathy?
No, not at all, nor should we expect there to be a future generation that comes along without any sort of empathy either, no matter how expansive the internet becomes and how much it infests our real lives. Humans naturally relate to each other and it is in our nature to try and reach out to others of our species, to share in their feelings and try to understand one another. The one great way that modern technology increases our empathy is in the amazing information sharing power of the internet. While empathy is chemically fostered in the brain by watching others react to understood actions, it is also more generally created by being more open-minded, and that is something that is certainly promoted by the internet. (Yes there is horrible ignorance online and many people find ways of cementing their narrow views by reading only other self-approving accounts online, but those exceptions are greatly outshined by the extent of new information shared). The more we read of other cultures, and other people, and see the extent of basic disparities between the lives of those in different countries (or even those in living in different parts of the same city), the more empathy we gain. The limitless experiences of others accessible through social media serve as examples that make it easier for us to understand our own lives. We empathize through each others’ words almost as well as through facial expressions, and Millennials have more words available to us than any other generation before. Modern technology is no excuse for a decrease in individual (or collective) empathy; quite the opposite, we should strive to be the most empathetic generation ever, using our vast array of available knowledge and newfound abilities to share experience to become a global society that is more cohesive and more accepting.