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Social Media Zaps Our Empathy

Kids need to see how tech can be used to build people up, not the opposite

Lately I’ve been talking a lot about bullying. It’s an epidemic for our kids — but it’s not something that, as a parent, you’re defenseless against. You can do something to help.

Something parents feel particularly helpless with is cyberbullying. And cyberbullying has become a bigger and bigger problem. It’s reported that 43 percent of students have been bullied while online, and 53 percent of kids admit they have said something mean or hurtful to another kid online — one in three of those have done so more than once.

In 30 years, self-centeredness has increased by 40 percent in students; empathy has decreased by 30 percent.

Cyberbullying is a huge issue. I recently interviewed Dr. Josh Straub, a psychologist and leading expert on social media and the effect it’s having on our kids. One of the big points he makes is that social media is causing teens to lose empathy.

In our interview, he talked about a study done on college students. The study found that over the past 30 years, self-centeredness has increased by 40 percent in students and empathy has decreased by 30 percent. This lack of empathy is a product of an internet culture that teaches kids they are the center of the universe and distances them from real relationships and face-to-face conversations.

With this lack of empathy and face-to-face connection, it has become easier and easier for kids to bully other kids online.

Related: Social Media is Not Your Friend

They even share videos of bullying so the whole school can see — causing kids to be desensitized to inappropriate and cruel behavior.

So what can we do about it?

If a lack of empathy is at the core of the problem, teaching our kids to have empathy is the solution.

As a parent, one of the most important things you can do is teach your child how to respect other kids. Talk with your kids about what life must be like for their best friends, for someone you meet at a ball game, etc. Take the time to ask your kids questions about others by saying, “I wonder if Johnny sees his parents much” or “I heard that Ellie’s father passed away a few years ago, I wonder how she’s doing.” Simply by asking thought-provoking questions, you can help your kids begin to see how other kids live.

One of the best ways to teach your kids how to have empathy and love others is by involving them as you model it. Take some bread to a shut-in and bring your kids along. Find a neighbor who needs a helping hand and take your kids to their house to mow the lawn. The most effective way to teach kids how to love and respect other kids is by modeling these behaviors on a daily basis. This is the best way to counter the effects of desensitization that social media breeds. Dr. Straub also suggests asking your kids how they can use technology to build others up, instead of using it to tear them down.

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You may have heard about Natalie Hampton, the high school student who invented the app “Sit with Us.”

Hampton was ruthlessly bullied in middle school, and she says that one of the worst parts of that experience was having to sit alone at lunch every day. It made her feel isolated and alone. So she created “Sit with Us,” where kids can reach out to other kids and let them know their table is open and safe for anyone can sit with them.

If a kid walks into the lunchroom and has no one to sit with, he or she can open the app and see a list of all the open tables. No kid ever has to sit alone again.

This is empathy at work. This is hope. Students like Natalie Hampton are standing up for what’s right and watching out for potential victims. They are using the same technology that cyberbullies use — but they’re using it to build kids up instead of tear them down.

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Kids are not all social media-crazed zombies. They are human, trying to grow up in a digital world that doesn’t encourage them to be human. Instill empathy in your kids. Teach them to love and respect each other, and challenge them to use the cyber world for good — not for bullying.

Dr. Meg Meeker has practiced pediatrics and adolescent medicine for 30 years. She is the author of the online course, “The 12 Principles of Raising Great Kids,” which is part of The Strong Parent Project.

meet the author

Dr. Meg Meeker has practiced pediatrics and adolescent medicine for more than 30 years. She is the author of the book “Hero: Being the Strong Father Your Children Need” (Regnery Publishing), along with a number of digital parenting resources and online courses, including The 12 Principles of Raising Great Kids.

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