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Can Facebook Foster Adolescents’ Empathy?

In a new study, social media usage is linked with an increase in understanding and compassion over the course of a year.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Facebook has had a rough few weeks, having to respond to criticism centered on the platform’s perceived political bias and its curious decision to ban a photograph of a plus-size model. What the ubiquitous social network could use right now is evidence that its service is making the world a better place.

So a new study from the Netherlands should be welcomed with an ecstatic new emoticon. It concludes that, among adolescents, social media use fosters empathetic thoughts and feelings.

Previous research has documented declining levels of empathy among the young, and researchers have speculated that Facebook and Twitter may be partly to blame. But this study reaches the opposite conclusion, finding that “social media use can actually have a beneficial influence on empathy.”

“Social media use might be a way for adolescents to practice social skills,” Helen Vossen of Utrecht University and Patti Valkenburg of the University of Amsterdam write in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

The study featured 942 Dutch adolescents between the ages of 10 and 14. They filled out detailed questionnaires in the fall of 2012, and again in the fall of 2013.

On both occasions, participants were asked how many days per week they use social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as instant-messaging applications such as WhatsApp. They were also asked to indicate how much time per day they spent using these services.

“Social media use might be a way for adolescents to practice social skills.”

They were then presented with a series of empathy-related statements, such as “When a friend is scared, I feel scared”; “I can tell when someone acts happy, even when they actually are not”; and “I feel sorry for someone who is treated unfairly.” They responded to each on a one-to-five scale, from “never” to “always.”

The key result: “Adolescents who more frequently use social media improved their ability to share and understand the feelings of others over time.”

Specifically, over the course of a year, kids who were heavier users of social media increased their levels of both cognitive empathy (the ability to understand others’ emotions) and affective empathy (the willingness to share those feelings).

This has positive repercussions. As Vossen and Valkenburg note, “understanding and sharing the emotions of others are crucial skills to develop in adolescence, as they greatly influence social interaction.”

However, the researchers also concede that this is, for one, the first longitudinal study of its kind, and needs to be replicated. It’s also not clear if these positive results will also apply to older adolescents and young adults.

So we can’t make any sweeping statements that social media builds empathy quite yet. But after the events of last week, I feel for Mark Zuckerberg, and am happy to give him some tentatively good news.

Then again, why wouldn’t I empathize with him? I’m on Facebook.