Is the wired world creating a lack of empathy?

Written by Dr. Andrew Doan & Brooke Strickland on .

Kids and youth today spend hours at a time connected to technology. For some, this means that they lack real human connection and simply cannot communicate or feel emotions the same way that others do. Children and young adults that have been trained to “click” rather than communicate how they are feeling via real life interaction, often lack empathy and compassion.  Youth today are exposing their brains to technology in ways that generations of people before probably never dreamed. Through repetitive use, kids and teenagers train their brains to stay connected with friends via texts and Internet chats instead of face to face interaction. Continued tech use often exposes their brains to shocking images and videos.

In a 2007 study of 197 students age 17 to 23 years, participants were asked to quickly name the emotional expression of a face as it transformed from neutral to an angry or happy face. Happy faces were identified faster than angry faces, but when the volunteers played a violent video game before the facial recognition task, they were much slower to recognize the happy facial expression. An earlier study completed by Brain and Cognition, Robert McGivern and co-workers found that adolescents struggle with the ability to recognize another person's emotions. The teenage volunteers in their study had particular trouble labeling specific emotions that were on people’s faces.  Scientists have even determined a specific region of the brain that controls this tendency toward lack of empathy and selfishness.  With repetitive use of the latest and greatest tech gadgets, children are rewiring their brains and after a while, this will affect their thinking processes, how they make decisions, and how they interact with other humans. (1)

Teenagers today are living in a different world. Facebook, Twitter, and other apps are swallowing teenagers alive. They suck them into an online world that simulates friendship and connection, but in fact, it is lonely and isolating and with obsessive use, can desensitize and eliminate empathy. Combine this with violent video games and movies, and there is a recipe for disaster.  Last week, a teenager took a fellow student’s life simply because she said “no” to going to prom with him. Instead of sharing his disappointment with peers or family members, he turned violent and murdered her. He experienced rejection but didn’t have the emotional capacity to handle it. It’s because of horrible tragedies like this that we must ask ourselves why our youth are becoming less empathetic and more violent.

  1. Small, Gary, Vorgan, Gigi. “Is the internet killing empathy?” February 18, 2011. Accessed May 7, 2014.
  2. Ablow, Keith. “The new drama of adolescence and a Connecticut teen’s senseless death.” April 28, 2014. Accessed May 7, 2014.


    By Brooke Strickland and Andrew Doan MD PhD