An Aspiring Digital Citizen? Bring Your Empathy, You Will Need It!

This video is from the website Common Sense, which is a veritable treasure trove of resources relating to Digital Citizenship. It brings to mind a wise piece of advice that I received from my Step Father; when I was a young teenager, making my first forays into the world of messaging and online interactions.

I had received a message from a friend and had taken exception to it. After, no doubt, a long period of stressing out and tense worrying, my Step Father said, “The words in the message are not actually that negative. If you do not know the intent behind the message, then there is no need to assume that it is an attack on you!” Clearly, I had made some assumptions about said message that were not true in reality and it took someone who was outside of the situation (and with a more developed sense of relationships and human beings in general) to make me realise that.

I am sure that we have all experienced these situations (especially when young), and though making mistakes is a crucial part of the learning process; the fact is that the majority of our interactions online are text based. If our youngest are unable to see the person that they are speaking to, how can we help them to make the most of their time online? How can we help them to develop the skills necessary for positive collaborations on the Internet? How can we help them to be effective Digital Citizens? Surely, empathy is the key and underlies everything.

Wait, what is empathy?

There are different strands within the theories on empathy, and differing understandings of exactly what it is. Wikipedia broadly defines it as, “…the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.” It then goes on to summarise the different notions of it, and particularly draws on the linked but different terms of: sympathy, pity, compassion and emotional contagion.

A challenging article by Terry Heick on Edutopia.org which is found here elucidates the difference between Affective Empathy, chiefly when we experience sensations or feelings in response to others’ emotions, e.g. mirroring stress; and Cognitive Empathy, essentially taking on the perspective of another person.

Though the definitions differ, most people would agree that if a person is empathetic then they can use their imagination to see the world in the eyes of another, especially from their emotional perspective. We would also include in this the ability to understand how another person is feeling, and react appropriately to the situation at hand.

So, why is empathy important?

It’s foundational to embracing differences, building relationships, gaining a global perspective, conducting richer and deeper analysis, and communicating more effectively. This skill is about as “21st century” as it gets – Homa Tavangar on edutopia.

A good grounding in empathetic understanding secures us for a successful life. It is an “essential mindset” as is stated on the article Building Empathy in Classrooms and Schools on EdWeek.org. This is because it underlies every interaction that we have and our entire view of the world is affected by it. Without empathy; we struggle to make friends, comprehend difference, analyse situations and share ideas. Empathy is a skill which is central in our learning about historical stories, literature and religions. Our best leaders are empathetic with those that follow their lead. Teaching is surely a profession which is entrenched in empathy.

Empathy assists students when they are considering crucial questions, such as: who am I? Who is the other? How do we relate? What do they need from me? What do I need from them? What should I do with what I know? How can I communicate it? (Questions gained from the previously mentioned article.

Can we actually teach empathy though?

Terry Heick, as previously mentioned, suggests: “Teaching always begins with detachment –learn this skill or content strand that is now apart from you. Empathy is the opposite –it starts in the other, and finishes there without leaving.” Though I do not agree that teaching starts with detachment (I prefer to believe that my students are solving challenges that are real to them and developing skills that they will use during their whole lives, rather than just content or cold objectives), I do see Heick’s point in that rudimentary, stand-alone lessons on empathy may not be the most appropriate method.

Sure – we teach the basics of personal, social and health education in this way. But, a skill like empathy has to seep into every aspect of the classroom. It has to be behind our interactions and discussions need to take place regularly on the very subject of empathetic understanding.

Multiple reinforcements and multiple outlets for action can start to shift a class or school culture toward empathy as a strength that’s consciously practiced and cultivated, contributing to life-long health, inside and out – Homa Tavangar on edutopia.

We have to spend energy and time on allowing our students to develop their empathy. We can model it for them and define it; we can discuss the audience that we have for our writing or work generally; we can read stories and discuss characters; we can show empathy towards our colleagues in the presence of our children. An article via the BBC, explains that we can adopt a Buddhist-style approach to this and spend a whole day becoming mindful of every person connected to our routine actions, and “become curious about strangers.”

The Start Empathy website provides a wonderful toolkit which contains a step-by-step method for how to meticulously embed true teaching of empathy into our schools and has amazing ‘Empathy 101’ videos, such as this one:

During these meaningful, everyday conversations with our pupils, we can also discuss problematic issues. We can talk about issues such as bullying, mindless messaging, oversharing on Social Media or boasting (especially about material objects and money). As parentingscience.com advises, “We can teach kids about the existence of an empathy gap.”

How does empathy relate to Digital Citizenship?

If empathy runs through the heart of every offline interaction, then our online world does not exist in a vacuum. Yet, I would argue that we need to exercise even more careful readings of situations, especially when emotive and on the Internet. Our skills need to even more precise, given that we may lack a visual of a person and be exposed to a far wider range of opinions and differences.

The ambiguity of context in Internet communication can often be perceived as a threatening situation, and the flight-or-fight attitude is triggered, resulting in an escalating sense of offense as a form of defense – Article on the Huffington Post by Suren Ramasubbu.

Clearly, if we are to help our youngest to navigate these interactions, then we must show them how to consider the emotions and feelings of their audience when they communicate, and also train them in comprehending messages from others with emotional dexterity.

In the same article, Jean M. Twenge explains that there has been a rise in self-reported narcissism online; and Sara H. Konrath proposes that there is a decline in self-reported empathy with an increase in social isolation. A clear and caring teaching of empathy from an early age is clearly an essential facet of education to help our children to navigate the modern world of digital community.

Then there is the current trend for spreading misinformation, full of misunderstandings and all-too-simplistic commentary on serious issues…

To get past the false dichotomy of “objective good versus objective evil,” we need to develop the skill of empathy — and it is a skill – Richard J. Anderson on medium.com.

Clearly, empathetic understanding has to be at the forefront of our thinking and so much positivity can be the result. The connections on the Internet, of course, is also a wonderful source of opportunity for the advancement of understanding and global togetherness. As Tracy Alloway is quoted as stating in a NY Times article, “…Facebook can break down those boundaries. We can be exposed to different ways of thinking and emotional situations.”

We should not deny our youngest these opportunities, nor set them up to fail. Empathy is one of the keys that can unlock the positive side of online communication for our students. It is time for us to prioritise it.

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