Widgets Magazine

Technology: Does it breed or kill empathy?

The idea of spending a day without access to technology is, for most college students, an unbearable thought. But the increasing dependence on technology for social communication has become a cause of concern for many who believe technology limits human connection and creates superficial interactions through immediate gratification.

In a June 7 New York Times article, communication professor Clifford Nass voiced his concern that heavy use of technology alters the way people interact with each other.

“The way we become more human is by paying attention to each other,” he said in the article. “It shows how much you care.”

Studies have shown that increased dependence on technology has resulted in the diminishing of empathy by limiting the amount of human interaction that takes place. According to Jennifer Aaker, a professor at the Graduate School of Business and a co-author of “The Dragonfly Effect,” a recent analysis of 72 studies performed on nearly 14,000 college students between 1979 and 2009 showed a sharp decline in the empathy trait over the last 10 years.

Although studies show that the increased use of technology has in fact resulted in a loss of human empathy, Aaker argues that technology may be used as a tool to encourage and implement social good.

“In ‘Dragonfly’ we argue that one mechanism is through fostering processes and mindsets that cultivate a radical focus on listening to others and understanding them before we build solutions…design thinking is one such process,” Aaker said.

Ian Tien M.B.A. ’11 discussed his ability to connect with his aunt in Taiwan through common technological interests. Tien believes that sharing common experiences through Facebook or online gaming can contribute to learning about others and gaining insight that would not otherwise be accessible in casual conversation.

“I think that while each form of media has its own dynamics, human factors–and interpretations–dominate the experience,” Tien said.

“Someone surrounded by genuine, thoughtful friends will feel distinctly different about blogs, Twitter and Facebook than someone whose company is cynical and vapid,” he added.

Social media networks like Facebook have been used to promote fundraising and awareness about global humanitarian issues. Following Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake in January, FarmVille, a Facebook application, launched the “Sweet Seeds for Haiti” campaign, which raised $487,500 in donations within three weeks.

Aaker says profit and social good do not have to be separate entities and can, in fact, be used to mutually benefit each other.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that the work of making big changes in the world is not limited to massive nonprofits or peacekeeping missions,” Aaker said. “It can come from anywhere, from an individual with a YouTube account all the way to a big-budget business. We live in a world increasingly connected through social networks that make it possible for all of us to make those big changes the world really needs.” Additionally, Aaker says that small gestures, such as those enabled by social media, can ultimately make a big difference.

“Make ripples. Small acts can create big change,” Aaker said. “Every long journey starts with a first step….one act of good can inspire dozens, hundreds or even thousands of others to tackle similarly small goals that when combined yield disproportionate success.”

Contact Marianne Levine at mlevine2@stanford.edu.