When it really comes down to it, empathy is about understanding someone else’s emotions. The capacity for changing perspective and sharing another’s experience vicariously, as if you were in their place. Seeing the situation from their eyes. Putting yourself in their shoes. With the Digital Age, we have seen the coming of a great deal of trouble in this department. We discussed this trouble and what it means for our kids in Monday’s posting on The Gottman Relationship Blog – today we dig deeper. 

When the internet swallows us up, it teaches our brains to function differently. We are, in pretty literal sense, rewired. Our kids are brought up more or less unfamiliar with old-fashioned ways of thinking – the kind of antiquated, time-consuming, linear contemplation of ideas that came pretty naturally to our species a few decades ago.

Between tweets, texts, dinging notifications, blogs, shares, and tags – somewhere amidst the mindless sightseeing and exploration of endless jungles of web content, from the boughs to the branches to the limbs to the twigs and back again –  our brain maps are rapidly changing. As our brains evolve (or devolve, depending on your perspective), compulsion and distraction are made mainstream, and our thoughts are scattered. Thank you, neural plasticity.

All of this is ultimately understandable. Functioning at work and in our social lives is often simplified and streamlined by our reliance on the Net. Much of our modern-day experience is brought to us by a great number of individuals exemplifying efficiency in cyberspace a great deal of the time.

We know that the Net’s stimulations, while often a source of quick ideas and inspiration, can also leave us fatigued – worn out by noisy disorder. When we emerge from the tilt-a-whirl, many of us are surprised by the amount of time we’ve spent engulfed in a state of complete absorption. The benefits we reap from the high-speed associative thinking our high-speed web connections afford us come at a cost. Our online habits – our ability to abruptly change trains of thought as we dart quickly between ideas – may feel freeing. In truth, though these habits enable us to make swift associations online, they foster the kind of confused, distracted thinking that chronically hinders our ability to perceive the subtleties of deeper relationships offline.

In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr writes, “It’s not only deep thinking that requires a calm, attentive mind. It’s also empathy and compassion.” Here, he cautions against complacency: “One of the greatest dangers we face as we automate the work of our minds, as we cede control over the flow of our thoughts and memories to a powerful electronic system… [is] a slow erosion of our humanness and our humanity.”

What are we supposed to do with this grim warning? Here is what we do:

It is imperative that we remember our power to overcome these challenges in our own lives. Human beings are wired for sociability and companionship, affection and attachment. As parents, we must work to show our children the value of these qualities.

When we are born, we are not self-aware. We are very small and we aren’t able to imagine what’s happening in someone else’s head. We don’t realize that, although they are in the very same situation, they may be having a wildly different experience. As we grow, we begin to figure this out. We learn what science calls theory of mind! This happens around the ages of 3 or 4, when we develop an understanding of the following: what someone has learned about the world may cause them to have opinions and belief systems that diverge from ours, determining their perception of experiences and influencing their reactions, both in external behavior and internal state. When we learn this, we begin to notice and distinguish between the emotional states of others, recognizing and identifying with those we are familiar with. It is then that we begin to appreciate the value of empathy.

So we don’t have to allow a “powerful electronic system” to “automate the work of our minds” or “cede control over the flow of our thoughts and memories.” To avoid having our values perforated by the cutting edge, we must affirm our humanity. As parents, we can do a great deal by creating a safe and loving environment for our children. There, we can model and emphasize the meaning of healthy attachment, demonstrating the importance of treating others with empathy, selflessness, affection, and respect. Try it this weekend.

More in The Digital Age
The Digital Age: Emotion Coaching & Empathy Part II

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.