Developing Empathy in Children in the Digital Age

We need children to empathise, is a common refrain. Why do we need children to empathise? Children who empathise make true connections in the world. Empathy is a quality that helps children open their eyes to the richness and diversity around them. Empathy is considered a key element of emotional intelligence.

Empathy in Children

Technology today is changing the way we do things in every aspect of our life. It is quite common to see children just a few months old watching YouTube videos on a loop. Life has become far more convenient thanks to the many technological advances humans have made. In the near future, artificial intelligence is all set to free humans of several mundane tasks. What remains then is to do things we are passionate about and that requires high empathy.

Children and Technology

It’s easy for children to switch off and live in a bubble with technology. Most children today have an active online life with their friends than they do sometimes offline. They are keen to be accepted by their peers and life online is as stressful as it is offline often. Usage patterns are more than 5 hours of screen time per day. Many kids can be cruel and hurtful without really realising it. It may seem like they are just words exchanged online and nothing more. Unfortunately, many of the words said online have a profound effect offline today. This is how we hear about many tragic suicides where kids felt isolated and afraid because of online conversations. This is why the present has become the age of despair with teenage anxiety and depression on the rise. Even while surrounded by people many children (and adults) look at their phone. Parents can set an example with their own behaviour of using technology. They can give their undivided attention when they talk to their children and not be distracted by their devices. In this way, children too learn to live in the moment with full interest.

How Empathy Helps

Yet another aspect is that children who are wrapped in an online life sometimes forget that there is a world outside of it. They also lose touch with themselves and therefore the ability to be able to understand other perspectives. When we seek children to empathise we would like them to empathise with is themselves, their family, friends, and the ever enlargening circle outside of it. When they do this is that they understand situations and the people in it better. By knowing themselves they are able to visualise how they will react in a situation. The difference between success in an endeavour and complications is the ability to truly understand how others in it feel and what motivates them. This is even more complex in an online environment where other participants are usually just a handle.

Empathy in Children

Methods to Improve Empathy in Children

Children who learn to empathise are therefore able to humanise the ‘handles’ by asking pertinent questions and carefully looking at responses before reacting. Both offline and online children can build their empathy muscle by:

  1. Observing
  2. Paying Attention
  3. Sharing Experiences

1. Observing

By observing a child absorbs information and learns. This is so true when they observe those who are outside of their culture. Observation also increases a child’s understanding of the layered nuances of units children may already be familiar with like their family or school. By observing they change gears from passing through to actively noticing how things are truly done. Online the same rules apply. Children can observe messages and their tone before they respond.

2. Paying Attention

A child who pays attention is truly listening to what is being said. They are not simply reacting. In an argument, the child who listens gets the opportunity to understand an opposing point of view. Even if they do not agree with it they are able to better assess the situation thanks to the new information. This usually leads to better communication.

Heated discussions online can often go way out of hand. Children can spend time to read and understand a vastly different point of view even if they do not agree with it, before responding. The speaker responds more positively when they feel they are truly heard. This improves the chances of collaboration and arriving at a solution amenable to both parties.

Children who are ghosted or not listened to can sometimes react in violent ways. This is where the paying attention aspect of empathy helps. The person who is listened to is then ready to let down their guard and work together going forward.

3. Sharing Experiences

It was common practice to sit with friends and acquaintances and trade stories. When we share stories we are sharing information and adding to another’s experience even if it is the third party. Children gain immensely by sharing their experiences with each other. They can learn that they are online to learn, understand, share their ideas and knowledge too, rather than merely reacting or posting comments. They can extend themselves beyond the tight circle of friends and family.

Neha, a teen loves travelling and knowing more about nature. She follows The National Geographic, The Jane Goodhall foundation and other channels where she can observe, discover career paths and share information with other nature enthusiasts. In this way, she is enlarging her circle of understanding of the world beyond the walls of her classroom and home.

This exercise of exchanging experiences helps children realise that other children too have the same feelings of fear, happiness, anxiety and peace. They understand that others too have many aspirations. Though they may look different from each other they are in essence the same.

In Conclusion

Children who empathise understand the world and themselves better, challenge the status quo, particularly prejudices and find commonality in differences. These qualities are desperately required and are never going to go out of fashion no matter how advanced technology becomes. Empathy is a singularly human characteristic, in which we acknowledge the humanness in each of us and despite apparent differences, we appreciate our sameness. Empathy can be sown online also when one is kind in the way they speak to others and has online manners.

Children who empathise more have a better chance of thriving and growing. It helps them become more collaborative and have a varied and interesting inner life. Empathetic children understand the ‘soft’ more unknown parts of a problem better and arrive at solutions that benefit many. The world is in need of many, many empathetic leaders, technologists, teachers, builders, artists, thinkers and creators. Get your child started on becoming more empathetic today.