Social Media and Our Growing Empathic Abilities

Having grown up in the digital age, I cannot imagine a world without social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat- these are all digital social networks I use on a daily basis; they are a medium, through which I can connect with those who are not physically present at the time.

There is a lot of buzz about the effects of social media use on society. We, as humans, are social creatures and our views on social media use vary widely. For example, cultural analyst Sherry Turkle believes that we have taken social media use way too far, saying in her TED talk “Connected, but Alone?” (see below) that it is leading to “pretend empathy”, and that “we expect more from technology and less from each other” (Turkle). On the other hand, Elizabeth Tenety writes for the Washington Post that “social media may contribute to the social good” and that social media allows for “new ways to show our empathy” (Tenety).

Both valid arguments, however, I have to agree more with Tenety because what she wrote aligns much more with what I have actually experienced through social media use. Take the 2015 Paris terror attacks for example. In the event of such a terrible crisis, people from all over the world came together to show their support for Paris. A glimpse of this is shown in a video put together by BBC News. Like never before, we are in the loop about what is going on in our world. Although I was not in Paris during the time of the attacks, I was able to involve myself and show support through social media use. On Facebook, I was able to change my profile picture temporarily to show support for Paris, on twitter I could share hashtags, such as #Prayers4Paris, and on Instagram I could share photographs and caption them with similar hashtags to raise awareness and show my support. Without social media, I would have been out of the loop.

Tenety describes this awareness of all things-good and bad- going on in our world as our extended social network and notes that with bigger social networks, comes more social responsibility. She also notes that this added social responsibility could be helping us become better friends and it is empowering us to make a difference in the world (Tenet). Although some may argue that showing support through social media does not make a real difference, I argue that the effects may be indirect, but overall having people in the loop more than ever before can only lead to more overall good. Not everyone is expected to stop their lives completely in the face of a crisis half-way across the world. Social media allows us to do something, rather than nothing at all, and exposing us to what is actually happening allows us to build our empathic abilities.

Another way social media helps build empathy is through crowd funding. Even if I am unable to spend my time volunteering, I can donate money and share links to donation pages so others can donate as well. We see more and more examples of people going through personal hardships and it is easier than ever before to empathize and do something about it. In a year long study of trust and empathy in project success, even when the goal was not met through crowd funding the “overwhelming generosity of the people who did fund projects was usually reported as surprising and moving for the people who ran the campaigns” (“A Taxonomy of…”). It may even be easier to reach out for help on social media for some people. The app Instagram even came out with a new feature that lets you anonymously and without confrontation report a post when you feel like someone is crying out for help, and Instagram will offer support to that person.

Social media is a tool for humans made by humans, therefore we can fine-tune it to help build our empathy on a larger scale. Already, we can show support and raise awareness through social media, as we have seen during the Paris terror attacks last year, and everyday advancements are being made to help us help each other more and more. We are forming connections we would have never had the chance to in the past, with people we may have never crossed paths with if it were not for social media. We are exposed to a wider range of unique individuals, and this exposure helps us empathize better with different and more people.

Works Cited

“A Taxonomy of UK Crowdfunding and Examination of the Potential of Trust and Empathy in Project Success.” EMoTICON Network. WordPress, 06 June 2016. Web. 01 Nov. 2016.

Connected, but Alone? Prod. TED2012. Perf. Sherry Turkle. TED. TED Conferences, LLC, Feb. 2012. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.

Tenety, Elizabeth. “The Digital World Is Warmer than You Think. Here’s How Social Media Builds Empathy.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 24 Feb. 2015. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.

Turkle, Sherry. “Transcript of “Connected, but Alone?”” TED. TED Conferences, LLC, Apr. 2012. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.

Thompson, Marcus. “Paris Attacks: Social Media Response.” BBC News. BBC News, 15 Nov. 2015. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.



48 thoughts on “Social Media and Our Growing Empathic Abilities

  1. I agree that social media helps us connect to world events in a way that we would not otherwise be able to do. For my research, I read an article by Teddy Wayne called “Found on Facebook: Empathy” ( In it, he says that empathy has changed in the digital age, and that younger people are more likely to experience empathy online than older people are. I think this applies here, as you said that you have grown up with social media, and it helped you emotionally connect to the 2015 Paris terror attacks. Without social media, you may have known about the attacks and vaguely felt bad for the victims, but social media allowed it to feel more real and more terrible because you empathized more.

  2. You bring up some good points here. I have a very indifferent stance on social media and empathy though, and it’s simply due to its experience differing from person to person. I think if you’re an empathetic human-being, you will continue to be on social media as you are off it. However, for others, it’s an outlet to criticize and condemn.

    Mel Wiggins points to her experience on social media when the Paris attack occurred, and it was quite negative. She found that the constant updates of photos and statuses were undermining the seriousness of what had happened, and so she did not see empathy in others. She saw attention seeking behavior. This variance in experience suggests that social media’s effect might be due to what paradigm you’re viewing its usefulness in. Someone born into the era of social media might see it as an extension of themselves, and thus will find it normative and enlightening to be continuously connected with the world, and so might experience more empathy than they would if they weren’t using it (or so they assume). In contrast, Keith O’Brien from the Boston Globe talks about the empathy deficit, and how social media appears to have lowered empathic concern by over 40%. He says, “Even as they become more connected, young people are caring less about others.” Whatever the case, empathy is malleable, and social media will always have positive and negative implications on it, so the way to reverse the empathy deficit would be not by changing social media–but by changing our paradigms.

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  4. There is a lot of buzz about the effects of social media use on society. We, as humans, are social creatures and our views on social media use vary widely.

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