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Is Technology Making Children More Empathic?

Posted: 04/15/10 10:35 AM ET

Jeremy Rifkin, the author of the just-published book The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis, suggests that The Age of Reason is being eclipsed by the Age of Empathy. The Age of Reason refers to the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment, in which reason, analysis and science became the metrics by which all knowledge is measured.

Unfortunately, Rifkin says, our educational structures and modes of teaching science remain grounded in the Age of Reason. Rote memorization of facts, competition among peers and individual achievement are hallmarks of this approach. As Rifkin explains,

[T]he traditional classroom curriculum continues to emphasize learning as a highly personal experience designed to acquire and control knowledge by dint of competition with others. The shift into the distributed ICT [Information and Communications Technology] revolution, however, and the proliferation of social networks and collaborative forms of engagement on the Internet are creating deep fissures in the orthodox approach to education. The result is that a growing number of educators are beginning to revise curricula by introducing distributed and collaborative learning models into the classroom. Intelligence, in the new way of thinking, is not something that is divided up among people but, rather, the field of experience that is shared between people.

Today, young people see the world in a different way than their parents, who often cannot understand why their children are always glued to their BlackBerries in an orgy of talking, texting and tweeting. While their parents value individualism and privacy, today's youngsters view connectivity, interaction and collaboration as everything. And forget privacy; for them, being out of touch is a cardinal sin.

The extent of their kids' connectivity is disturbing to many adults. "If your kids are awake, they're probably online," said a report on media use by kids in The New York Times in January 2010. "The average young American now spends practically every waking minute -- except for the time in school -- using a smart phone, computer, television or other electronic device," says the Times. The basis for these observations is a 2009 national survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, "Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8 to 18-Year-Olds." The study found that kids eight to eighteen spend more than seven and a half hours a day with such devices. And that does not count the hour and a half that they spend texting, or the half-hour they talk on their cell phones. And as a result of media multitasking, such as surfing the Internet while listening to music, they cram nearly eleven hours of media content into those seven and a half hours.

The authors of the Kaiser study say they were shocked. Following a similar survey in 2005, they concluded that the use of electronic devices could not possibly grow further. Their 2009 study found several worrisome trends, such as the correlation of heavy media use with behavioral problems and lower grades. What are parents to do? Some experts suggest they simply get over it. Pediatrician Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health of Children's Hospital Boston, says that media use among kids is so pervasive that it is time to stop arguing over whether it is good or bad and accept it as part of children's environment, "like the air they breathe, the water they drink and the food they eat."

Many observers such as Rifkin believe there are positives in the desire of kids to be electronically connected all the time. Concealed in this behavior, they say, is a need for acceptance and to be liked and loved, which is a healthy desire that has always been a part of the maturational process. The obsessive reaching out via electronic media may be one remove from empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. If so, could educators proactively pick up this ball and run with it? This seems to be happening. In April 2009 The New York Times, in a front-page article, reviewed the empathy revolution that is taking place in American classrooms. Workshops and curricula to foster core values such as empathy, respect, responsibility and integrity now exist in eighteen states. Results of these pioneering efforts are encouraging. Schools report a marked decrease in bullying, violence, aggression and other anti-social behavior, fewer disciplinary actions, increased cooperation among students, more pro-social behavior, more focused attention in classrooms, a greater desire to learn and improved critical thinking skills.

Empathy programs in schools have been criticized as artificial, hokey and girly, and as a theft of curriculum time that could be devoted to "real" subjects. Proponents, however, see them as an indicator of a major shift in which relationships, collaboration and networks are as important as individualism and personal achievement were to kids of prior generations.

There is a tendency to view kids' passionate embrace of networked relationships and connectivity as an aberration ("what is this generation coming to?") or as a temporary event ("they'll grow out of it"). These responses may miss the larger picture. Kids' embrace of a new way of being in the world may mirror changes that have been steadily increasing in other areas of society, including science. As Rifkin says:

A new science is emerging whose operating principles and assumptions are more compatible with network ways of thinking. The old science views nature as objects; the new science views nature as relationships. The old science is characterized by detachment, expropriation, dissection and reduction; the new science is characterized by engagement, replenishment, integration and holism. The old science is committed to making nature productive; the new science to making nature sustainable. The old science seeks power over nature; the new science seeks partnership with nature. The old science puts a premium on autonomy from nature; the new science on re-participation with nature.

What happens when we try to inculcate children with the scientific method, the main legacy of traditional science? Too often the result is something of a disaster. In Part 3, we'll see why.


Rifkin J. The Empathic Civilization. New York, NY: Tarcher/Penguin; 2009: 604-605.

Lewin T. "If your kids are awake, they're probably online." New York Times. January 20, 2010. Accessed February 18, 2010.

Generation M2: media in the lives of 8- to 18-year-olds. Kaiser Family Foundation. January 20, 2010. Accessed February 18, 2010.

Rich M. Quoted in: Lewin T. If your kids are awake, they're probably online." New York Times. January 20, 2010. Accessed February 18, 2010.

Hu W. Gossip girls and boys get lessons in empathy. New York Times. April 4, 2009.

Rifkin J. The Empathic Civilization. New York, NY: Tarcher/Penguin; 2009: 601.

Rifkin J. The Empathic Civilization. New York, NY: Tarcher/Penguin; 2009: 599-600.