Scary Lack of Empathy in Our Kids

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Call it an empathy free fall.

Roughly 75 percent of college students rate themselves as less empathic than the average student did 30 years ago, a recent University of Michigan study revealed. The biggest drop in empathy occurred right after the year 2000 -- just about at the advent of social media. Scientific American reported the data.

Social networking, according to psychologist Edward O'Brien, has led young people to "lionize their own lives" and "create a buffer between individuals, which makes it easier to ignore others' pain, or even at times, [to] inflict pain upon others." Many young people have become so obsessed with their own image they are unable to view life through another person's perspective.

Some researchers believe the decline in empathy started during the 1980s' self-esteem movement. Children from that era grew up with the mantra, "You can't love anyone else until you love yourself." Social media has exacerbated these young people's self-obsession, as sites like Facebook and Instagram place pressure on them to manage their image. is then rewarded with "likes" and shares, perpetuating the cycle.

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While the self-esteem movement has shifted in recent years, many of today's parents are prioritizing technology over their own children. As detailed in Sherry Turkle's book, "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other," children frequently complain about their parents' obsession with technology. Her findings are unsettling: Many children believe their parents pay less attention to them than to their devices, not interacting with them face to face, even, until they finish responding to emails.

As online activity has increased, have dramatically decreased. Although "reading allows us to see the world through the lens of the different characters in a story, opens our minds to different opinions and perspectives, and helps nurture a sense of empathy in us," according to May Tan, director of the National Arts Council -- reading rates have significantly declined in the past 30 years. In 1984, 8 percent of 13-year-olds and 9 percent of 17-year-olds said they "never" or "hardly ever" read for pleasure, Time reported. By 2014, those numbers had nearly tripled.

Video gaming has impacted young people's empathy. Exposure to violent video games numbs people to the pain of others, according to psychologist Sara Konrath, a research assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. One study noted that children who play violent video games struggle to recognize happiness in others.

Many psychologists believe it is not a coincidence that the Newtown, Connecticut, and Aurora, Colorado, mass shootings were committed by young men who frequently played violent video games. Researchers at Ohio State University recently concluded that "people who have a steady diet of playing violent video games may come to see the world as a hostile and violent place."

The pressure for young people to continually achieve has also limited their ability to empathize. Adolescents are under tremendous and extracurricular activities so they can build their resumes. As a result, these kids are looking out for themselves and do not have the time or energy to care about others.

A recent UCLA study revealed that children's social skills are declining as they engage in fewer face-to-face interactions as a result of their over-reliance on digital media. But the reality, according to Turkle, is that "face-to-face conversation is the most human -- and humanizing -- thing we do. It's where intimacy is born; it's where empathy is born." In the absence of such real interaction, children are not developing empathy. The virtual world allows them to quickly discard others for any reason by "unfriending" and virtual "blocks."

As empathy levels have decreased, violet acts have increased. Since 2000, rates of mass murders in the United States have dramatically increased, according to The New York Times. As David Lester detailed in his book, "Mass Murder: The Scourge of the 21st Century," mass murderers "tend to have narcissistic traits, such as lack of empathy and hypersensitivity to insult." With cyberbullying on the rise, the perfect storm has been created in which young people are acting out with greater frequency.

To help strengthen empathy, we need to carve out sacred spaces for interaction that are device-free. We need to engage in face-to-face conversations and not allow ourselves to get distracted by technology. Parents and teachers need to understand the inverse relationship between technology and empathy: As screen time goes up, empathy goes down.

Families need to engage in more volunteer work -- not to build their child's resume, but to truly . Schools need to help students develop empathy through classroom reading and collaborative assignments. But most importantly, we must all develop greater digital discipline. As technology has made our world smaller, empathy has become even more critical to our success and well-being.

Daniel Riseman, founder of Riseman Educational Consulting in Irvington, New York, has been counseling students and working with families for 16 years.