“Gen-Y Attitude” – Less Empathetic?

In a 2010 article, Psychology Today quoted research demonstrating that college were 40% less empathetic than their 1970 counterparts. This supports the common description of Gen-Y’s being less empathetic, with many pointing to social media and technology as the cause. Is this really the case? In this article, I explore the role of nature, nurture, and technology in the development of empathy.

Research in the Wall Street Journal showed the development of empathy begins at 13 in girls and at 15 in boys. In fact, boys actually show a decrease in empathy between 13 and 16, potentially due to the increase in testosterone during this time. Both genders balance out towards the end of the teenage years. Empathy is broken down into affective empathy and cognitive empathy.

Affective empathy stems from our limbic system, which control our emotions. We start learning this in infancy from our parents and continue to develop it by watching others. Having parents who are attentive and interacting with others increases our ability to understand emotions and, by extension, our ability to show affective empathy.

Cognitive empathy comes from a different region, the medial prefrontal cortex. Affective empathy seems to have a positive correlation to cognitive empath, meaning the way we are raised impacts our cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy allows us to consider what it feels like to walk in another’s shoes. This development requires a great deal of concentration and researchers see greater activity in the medial prefrontal cortex in teens than adults. “Perspective-thinking” can be promoted by parents by asking their children to consider others and, especially with boys, stress that is is ok and important to do so. Boys often feel the need to “be a man” and be tough, which requires them to internalize their empathy and put on a front. This “alpha male” mentality may be caused by the increased testosterone levels from puberty. Thus cognitive empathy is impacted by both nature through testosterone levels and nurture through childhood experiences and the development of affective empathy.

The University of Rochester Department of Psychiatry  has found a 48% decrease in empathetic concern and a 34% decrease in perspective taking between 1979 and 2009. The research from the late 2000’s  suggests that social media and technology have caused this change. Is this true? Research from the last two years suggests it’s not.

Research from the Pew Research Centre suggests that those who are most active with their friends on Facebook also spent the most time face-to-face with them. Gen-Z, it seems, has learned to adapt their behaviours and communication cues to use social media to augment their socializing, not replace it. This is supported by Sara Konrath, a professor from The University of Rochester Department of Psychiatry, who found little generational difference in regards to empathy. In my last article, Giving Nature of Generations, I concluded that Gen-Y may not be able to donate to charities but certainly increase awareness. I think you require a certain level of empathy to become involved in charities or not-for-profits.

Technology has made the world more transparent and further reaching. Cases of bullying are now common news stories and come from across the country. What would have been local news or perhaps buried in a column piece on an inside page of a paper two decades ago is now quickly spread and turned into headline news.  This is just one example: look at the initiatives and awareness groups that spring to action after every disaster, whether it be the typhoon in the Philippines or the Boston Marathon shooting.

New technology brings with it new ways of communicating and it is generally met with resistance. In Children and Computers: New Technology – Old Concerns, authors Ellen Wartella and Nancy Jennings examine the trend of technology being blamed for behaviours that ended up fading once the youth matured. Radio’s became a common household item in the 1920’s and by the 30’s reports were coming out that it was contributing to “juvenile delinquency, providing youngsters with both method and inspiration for criminal acts”. Television was blamed for making youth “more impulsive and less analytic in their cognitive tempo and style”. The introduction of new technology was followed by research that initially focused on time spent using the medium, followed by how using it impacted learning, attitudes, values and moral conduct.

Reaching typical lifetime milestones is taking longer for Millennials than previous generations, with many returning home or relying on their parents for part of their income. The result of this is that Millennials have the privilege of remaining children longer, with teenage behaviours lasting well into their early twenties. Gen-Y’s and -Z’s expressions of empathy may appear apathetic, but I believe that we are maturing and the Gen-Z’s will be sure to follow.

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