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March 6th, 2013
Selflessness and empathy are two of the most important ingredients for children to develop healthy relationships. Selflessness involves the capacity for children to place the concerns of others appropriately ahead of their own. It allows others to sense that, whatever children do, their interests will be considered. Empathy is the ability for children to understand another person’s perspective and emotions, in other words, to feel what they feel. Empathy guides children’s moral behavior toward others; they wouldn’t want to hurt someone because they know how bad it would feel. Both attributes enable children to connect with others, facilitate communication at many levels, and, importantly, build trust and comfort in relationships.
Yet, popular culture and technology appear to be undermining the development of these fundamental relationship builders in children. There has been a dramatic rise in narcissism (the antithesis of selflessness) and decline in empathy among young people in the last two decades. Though we can’t assign a cause-effect relationship with absolute certainty, both shifts have come with the emergence of new technology and the extended reach it has afforded popular culture. It isn’t difficult to identify some of the specific culprits.
The “it’s all about me” zeitgeist of popular culture clearly interferes with the development of both selflessness and empathy. Whether reality TV, hip-hop music, or violent movies or video games, popular culture’s messages elevate the self above others and encourage benign neglect, at best, and wanton disregard for others, at worst.
Children see indifference and callousness play out in many forms of media every day. They see and experience bullying and cyberbullying daily at school. Media that depict violence desensitize children to it. These persistent messages, with few counterbalancing messages, explicitly condone such anti-relationship thinking and behavior.
Children have a hard enough time learning empathy (it comes relatively late developmentally) without being actively pushed away from it. For example, children normally have a difficult time recognizing emotions in other people, but, after playing a violent video game, young people were even slower at identifying facial expressions. So, the deck is already stacked against children learning empathy, and free and unguided exposure to popular culture just exacerbates the problem.
The many hours children spend with technology also discourages the development of selflessness and empathy. The messages from popular culture that I just described are conveyed predominantly through technology. When children are immersed in technology for so many hours, it prevents them from seeing acts of selflessness and empathy and healthier depictions of relationships. It also precludes children from interacting face to face with others and practicing selflessness and empathy.
So, children are faced with a “double whammy” against their learning how to develop positive relationships. First, they’re being bombarded with messages that teach them to be narcissistic and uncaring. Second, they have inadequate exposure to messages and experiences that convey selflessness and empathy which would support their development of healthy relationships.
(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)
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