College students today are significantly less empathic than students of the 80's or 90's, according to a new study by the University of Michigan. The 30-year longitudinal study of nearly 14,000 students found a 40% drop in empathy from the late 70's, with the sharpest decline occurring after the year 2000.
Why is this important? Because empathy helps us connect as a society. It's our glue and grease. Without it we're less collaborative and more violent, polarized and disrespectful. People do things like refuse to take the census (12% of the US population said they wouldn't or probably wouldn't complete the census - of that 12% nearly half were under 30). Obviously personal relationships are also more challenging and less nourishing.
Today's kids are not defective. In fact I think that if those 70's students took the test today many would be less empathic now than they were then. There are aspects of our society that we need to consider and adjust - namely our ever-increasing dependence on technology and an emphasis on the self over society.
In research that I conducted for my book on Generation Y I found that an over-emphasis on the self and constant messages of "don't settle" and "you can do anything" often backfired. Obviously, if you're highly focused on yourself there's less energy for others. Additionally, many of the young adults I interviewed were anxious or angry. Anxious that their choices weren't good enough, or angry that they weren't as central at work or in their peer relationships as they were to their parents and teachers.
Technology used to facilitate and orchestrate existing relationships is fabulous - but it's a lousy substitute for face-to-face intimacy. The average college student has over 400 Facebook friends - but how many of those know what's really in her heart? You can only feel loved to the extent that you show others who you really are - all else is superficial admiration. Time online is time spent away from real human contact - where mirror neurons fire and empathy and intimacy is born.