The Electronic Apocalypse and the Loss of Empathy

Family columnist warns of ‘electronic apocalypse’ from online generation of electronics-addicted youth

Source: | by L.J. Devon

kid-ipadAre we living in an electronic apocalypse and not even recognizing it as we text our way down the street, not noticing the people around us? Are we acting like zombies with our minds buried in our screens? In public, everyone is moving along fast, but do we really exist anymore? Are we really alive and free, interacting face to face? Where has the listening ear gone? Is all connection lost?

On Tim Lott’s Family column on The Guardian news site, these concerns come to life. High-tech phones and social media platforms have interconnected people over long distances, but humanity’s growing obsession and intoxication with the digital world is actually breaking real life bonds, destroying precious eye to eye contact.

We are losing empathy

Researcher Tim Lott longs for the days of old, describing the ugly reality that 21st century humanity is beginning to create. He wrote, “The physical apparatus we use to process the world is being re-shaped, and if we don’t preserve what we once had, our very sense of being will shift permanently and irreversibly. The content of our digital lives is no longer an appendage to life — it is reaching a point where it is life, in the sense that the imagination can conceive of nothing else.”

In researching the problem, he found some startling statistics. For one, the average teenager now manages 4,000 text messages a month. Five years ago, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that adolescents from 8 to 18 years of age were spending seven hours a day on handheld devices and phones. Tim also made a startling connection in his research. In a compilation of 72 studies, he found that the current online generation had 40 percent lower levels of empathy than previous generations.

Indeed, throwing away human interaction for electronic communication is destroying the human ability to relate, to perceive, to understand one another, and to accomplish new things. Technology destroys the empathetic connections between people. The addiction to hand-held screens cuts off one’s soul from the universe around him and the universe within him. Needing continuous partial attention also corrupts character, destroying human empathy for all living things.

“Human relationships now seem to be marked with what resembles a series of nervous tics — phone tics, PC tics, tablet tics,” wrote Lott.

He continues, “Where is the empty space into which we can climb in order to find ourselves? Not only are we losing its coordinates, a whole generation does not even know that it exists.”

Three ways to break the addiction to handheld devices

Here are three methods I have been using to disconnect myself from technology, while reconnecting my spirit with people and my spiritual self.

Leave the house and take a walk in the woods, in the park, in the country. Take no device on your adventure. Take a spouse, a sibling, a friend, if you like.

Invite people over and plan activities that force people to forget their phones and tablets. Board games are great for creating that present moment, face-to-face interaction.

Turn the devices off and practice yoga and meditation, looking inward, reconnecting with self and becoming aware of the energy in your body, not the devices’.

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Lack of empathy in a wired world

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“Young people are so rude these days,” says a teacher in a co-ed school. “They are so loud and noisy in cafés, not caring for those working on their laptops. In school, no one volunteers to erase the (writing on the) board or carry my bag, unlike in the past.

“When they rush past on their way to nowhere and happen to bump into you, they do not even apologize. In the movies, they keep on texting and even talk on the phone, not caring if they are spoiling the experience for other people. They are so used to characters being killed left and right on screen that they do not seem to care anymore.”

He concludes, “Our youth lack empathy.”

Several of my college students say their relationships start online. Though not ideal, there is nothing inherently wrong with this. But their relationships also tend to end as abruptly and publicly.

One of my male students angrily bashes his ex-girlfriend, who broke up with him through text. “When I confronted her, she would not even talk to me!” he fumes.

Another student found out he was dumped only when his ex’s Facebook status reverted to “Single.” “The whole world knew we were no longer together, except me,” he says. “She doesn’t have a heart.”

Generation Me

In 2011, psychologists Sara Konrath, Edward O’Brien and Courtney Hsing of the University of Michigan analyzed 72 different studies of 14,000 American college students for the last 30 years, from 1979 to 2009.

They found that college students today scored 40-percent lower in empathy than those of the past decades, with the biggest drop coming at the turn of the millennium.

Students today do not agree as much as before with statements like “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective” and “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.”

Various reasons have been advanced for the lack of empathy of Generation Me. Violent media can be a factor, making people insensitive to others’ pain.

But the rise of social media can also contribute to this decrease in empathy.

“The ease of having ‘friends’ online might make people more likely to just tune out when they don’t feel like responding to others’ problems, a behavior that could carry over offline,” O’Brien says.

According to the University of Michigan News, “Add in the hypercompetitive atmosphere and inflated expectations of success … and you have a social environment that works against slowing down and listening to someone who needs a bit of sympathy.”

“College students today may be so busy worrying about themselves and their own issues that they don’t have time to spend empathizing with others, or at least perceive such time to be limited,” O’Brien adds.

Fragmented lives

It may seem easier to start relationships online, but this may not necessarily transfer over to maintaining a stable one in real life.

“There have been significant declines in the number of organizations and meetings people are involved in, as well as in the number of average family dinners and friendly visits,” the researchers say. “Indeed, people today have a significantly lower number of close others to whom they can express their private thoughts and feelings.”

If we throw in the easy accessibility and lightning speeds of technologies, we tend to get more frustrated or even bored when things do not go as we want them to, resulting in less empathic interactions.

To top it off, technologies now are fragmented. Think of a family with each member on his/her own iPad, iPhone, laptop and so forth, channeled to his/her own personal interests and self-expression.

In a world of fragmentation, it would be less easy for many of us to reach out to other people and practice empathy in our dealings with them.


“Today’s adolescents have no less need than those of previous generations to learn empathic skills, to think about their values and identity and to manage and express feelings,” says Massachusetts Institute of Technology clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle in her book “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.”

Our children and our teens need time to reflect, to think, to discover themselves, others and the world around them. But with intrusive technology, “when is downtime, when is stillness?” Turkle asks.

I am not saying that text messaging and social networking make reflection and thought impossible. But these “do little to cultivate” them.

For example, since starting relationships seem so easy and smooth online, these seem not to be prized as much. Therefore, ending relationships is treated as easily.

“How [can] … children … develop empathy and compassion when the electronic world allows them to meet and discard people at the drop of a hat?”  say United States teen counselors Barbara Melton and Susan Shankle in their book “What in the World Are Your Kids Doing Online?”

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3 thoughts on “The Electronic Apocalypse and the Loss of Empathy

  1. You stated, “our very sense of being will shift permanently and irreversibly” and one would have to be blind not to concur. The first evidence of this come from the very nature of how we communicate. When was the last time anyone wrote a letter… in fact some schools now relegate learning penmanship with a minimal amount of time.

  2. I always was a child of computer technology, when I was 9, I got my first commodore, and from then, most of my free time spended in front of a monitor. For long time everyone was judging me becouse of this, saying it won`t teach me anything. But now, after almost 30 years, I`m a game developer, with still almost not changed at all passion for whole gaming world.

    And when I wake up, from a dream called life, I noticed, I`m much more in contact with reality, than all those masses, which are in constant concern and worry. Games actually helped me to distant from evil embedded world, and gave me an insight on what is real and what is not. So blaming technology is wrong path, as it can help or not, depending on its content. But much more important than technology, is parenting, school relations, all those things around us. Children always can choose content to play with, and if parenting is done right, child will choose right. Some of us are introvertics, and all that similar kind to me, just need an our space, for some this space are in books, for others like me, games.

    Games also learned me to be creative, to belive in success, to think most efficient (as to win, You have almost always be efficient). It gave me space to be myself, not interrupted, a space where I didn`t feel fear, where world didn`t crush me as it almost always did in real life. Without technology, I would be same zombie, as most of people around us are. So, please, do not blame technology, all problems in our world have completly different source, look where they really are.

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