Teaching Empathy in the Era of Snapchat

Originally published on Shore Points Mom 11/13/2017

With our kids spending less time interacting face-to-face and more time staring at screens, they’re beginning to speak in coarser, crueler ways to each other and to a large and captive audience. And this is having a devastating effect on their developing personalities. But taking away their devices isn’t the answer.


Remember being a kid and raising your hand in class only to answer a question totally wrong?

“What is the tallest mountain on Earth?”
“Mount Rushmore,” replies the 7th grader.
The class erupts in laughter.
The student’s face turns bright red as she sinks into her chair.

In my defense, I knew the answer was Mount Everest. (Yes, that student was me.) And until my classmates started laughing, I didn’t even realize my mistake. But once I realized that everyone was laughing at me, I wanted to crawl inside my desk and disappear. Mount Rushmore? Really?! What is wrong with me?! A few of my friends continued to tease me about it at lunch that day but that was the end of it. No permanent damage done.

Now let’s revisit my childhood gaffe in today’s context.

“What is the tallest mountain on Earth?”
“Mount Rushmore,” replies the 7th grader.
The class erupts in laughter.
Another student in the back of the class quietly pulls out her iPhone and sends out a Snap about the girl’s embarrassing answer. At lunchtime and in the hallways, students are staring into their phones and smiling and then looking at her and laughing. On the way home from school, an 8th grader seated behind her on the bus–who has never spoken to her before this day–  loudly asks her if she’d like to visit Mount Rushmore with him this weekend–he hears it’s lovely this time of year. Now the bus erupts in laughter. When she gets home, a ‘friend’ texts her to let her know that she’s now the topic of the latest Snapchat game and hundreds of her classmates are calling her an idiot and attacking the way she looks.

Yes, that Snapchat game is an actual thing. Kids use the platform to try and come up with the worst personal insults about a given child’s appearance, weight or personality. This ‘game’ sounds like an absolute nightmare for any adult, let alone an adolescent in the most awkward phase of her life.

Thank God smartphones didn’t exist in my 7th grade social studies class. My neon-banded braces and heavily sprayed bangs would not have held up well to public scrutiny.

Raising Kids in the Era of Snapchat–
and Twitter, and Instagram, and Music.ly

A New Anxiety is Born

Now, when students raise their hand in class and say something silly, they actually have to worry about their classmates texting or posting something about them. Over the past several years, I’ve noticed my students become increasingly less inclined to put themselves out there out of fear of being ridiculed by their peers. I used to chalk this up to typical adolescent insecurity until one of my former fifth graders confided in me that he was worried about another classmate—one with thousands of followers on Instagram— posting something embarrassing about him if he ‘messed up’ in class. I’m embarrassed to admit that before this day I had always considered myself a fairly proactive educator in terms of building classroom community and creating a safe place for my students and yet I’d never even considered the ways that social media could affect my students’ behavior within the safe walls of our classroom. And this was 5 years ago–before Snapchat and Music.ly took elementary schools by storm.

Can you imagine the kind of anxiety this creates in our children?

Take my middle school cheerleading team for example. Last year, my squad constantly worried that their classmates would take an unflattering picture of them during our halftime routine and share it with their followers on Snapchat or Instagram. This made them hyper-aware of anyone in the stands holding a phone. Even my best gymnasts would often hesitate or outright refuse to perform stunts that they could easily execute because the potential online backlash was always on their minds.

It’s often way too easy for us as adults to dismiss these fears as typical middle-school insecurities.Yes, kids were mean when we were young, too. Yes, we all have a story to tell about being teased as a kid and it’s usually followed by a smug commentary about how kids today need to toughen up.

Social Media as a Buffer

The major difference here is that the kids doling out insults when we were young had to actually witness our reactions to these insults. They had no other choice but to see firsthand the immediate effect that their words had upon their targets. As a result, most of us insulted a classmate once or twice and never did it again because we didn’t like the way it felt to hurt another person.

But what if we didn’t have to actually see the other child’s reaction to our callousness?

Using a smartphone as a buffer, our children are now able to insult each other without having to process the immediate consequence of their words. And with our kids now spending less time interacting face-to-face and more time staring at screens, they’re beginning to speak in coarser, crueler ways to one another and to a large and captive audience.

This is a big deal.

This avoidance of personal interaction is having a profound effect on the developing personalities of our children. A study from the University of Michigan found that today’s college students score 40 percent lower than their counterparts from the 1970s in the ability to understand what others are feeling.

The biggest drop in empathy occurred right after the year 2000 — just about at the advent of social media. Sites like Facebook and Twitter have not only created an impersonal nature to inflicting pain upon others but have also fueled anunhealthy self-obsession, making our children increasingly unable to view life through another child’s perspective.

So what can we do?

Sure, we can take away our children’s phones and limit their presence on social media but we can’t take away social media. Instagram and Twitter will still be there whether or not it’s installed on your kid’s phone. Just because our children can’t read the hurtful messages doesn’t mean they cease to exist. And to complicate matters, many schools now use social media or online platforms to coordinate events, or to post grades and homework. So it’s not as simple as saying, ‘Okay, time to take a break from your phone.’

This can all feel overwhelming for parents and educators alike, but there is a solution and it’s one that takes a village.

We need to actively model and teach empathy–at home, in school, on the playground, and on the field.

Teaching Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand the world from another person’s point of view and motivation to treat another kindly based on that understanding.

Empathy is both genetically determined and a learned skill that develops gradually with increasing age. The seeds for empathy are planted during the infant-toddler period and continue to grow during preschool.

Take my four-year old for example. Earlier this morning, he was chasing his teenage brother around the house with his toy lightsaber. It started out as fun until my teenager asked his little brother to stop–repeatedly. He wouldn’t listen and eventually landed a hard and direct hit to his older brother’s right eye, who then let out a loud yell and dropped to his knees crying. My four-year old was not expecting this reaction and ran away crying. He didn’t like seeing his older brother hurt. He really didn’t like knowing that he was the one who hurt him. The next time he wields his toy lightsaber, he will be able to draw from this experience. This is one way that children develop empathy–and self control.

But it’s  during the elementary school years that empathy either takes root and becomes a way of life or emotional callousness sets in. Empathetic teens really blossom and give joy to those around them. Teens that lack empathy—well, we try to avoid them.

Why Empathy Matters

The ability to see another’s viewpoint is an essential skill that will serve our children well in life. Children with empathy are better equipped to make decisions for themselves without seeking approval from their peers. This skill becomes increasingly important when dealing with the peer pressure that often surrounds bullying behaviors.

Research shows that a strong sense of empathy is important for personal, relationship and career success. People who are empathic tend to have an easier time navigating social interactions. As a result, they often perform better in school and experience greater success in the work force.

Empathy is not Sympathy

It’s important to recognize what empathy isn’t. Empathy is often confused with sympathy. But they are two very different things. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone. For example, imagine your friend just lost his job. A sympathetic response would be to say ‘I’m sorry to hear that’ or even ‘It’ll be okay; everything happens for a reason.’

An empathetic response is vastly different. When your friend loses his job, you do more than just offer expressions of support. You forget yourself, you listen deeply, you ask questions, you seek to truly feel what he is feeling to understand the significance of this loss to him. And it’s through this connection your friend feels understood and loved, and you can truly offer genuine support rather than simply saying ‘I’m sorry to hear that’.

Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective.

Understanding a situation from someone else’s perspective is different than imagining yourself in that situation. Perspective-taking means actively listening to what another person tells you about his experience so that you can understand what the experience means to him.

Think about it like this: Perspective + Compassion=EMPATHY

Be an Empathy Role Model

Your kids watch you for a living; it’s what they do. And generally, we develop empathy as children, through observing how others show it. So our children will learn empathy by watching us and by experiencing our empathy for them. Think of empathy as a life skill as opposed to a lesson. More marathon, less sprint.

Strategies to Develop Empathy in Our Children

1.Define it. It’s important to explicitly define empathy to our children. Explain to them that empathy is when you’re able to understand and care about how someone else is feeling.

Tip: One of the best explanations of empathy on the web is from our friends at Sesame Street. I’ve even used this with middle school students I’ve taught with great success. Watch the video with your child and use it as a starting point for a discussion. Click here to see the video.

2.Take care of yourself. Parenting can be exhausting and there are situations that can get in the way of our own capacity to empathize. Perhaps you’re stressed at work,  dealing with grief, or just plain overtired. It’s important to recognize these triggers and take active steps to care for your own mental and emotional health. When you’re in a negative mindset, it’s difficult to make a positive impact on others. In other words, put your oxygen mask on first.

3.Empathize with them. When your child gets hurt, stop saying ‘You’re fine.’ I admit that I used to do this when my teenager was a young boy. I didn’t want to raise a whiny kid and thought this would toughen him up a bit. Except that it never worked; every time I brushed off his pain, he cried louder. See? I thought to myself. He’s so whiny. He needs thicker skin. And then one day I was at the library with my youngest son and witnessed a little girl hit her head on a bookshelf. It wasn’t that hard of a hit but she cried loudly. And instead of telling her daughter, ‘You’re fine,’ the girl’s mother hugged her and said ‘I’m so sorry that happened to you. It must really hurt.’  The girl stopped crying within seconds. I was amazed. This mother empathized with her daughter’s pain instead of dismissing it and in turn the child felt understood and cared for and thus was able to move on quickly. From that day forward, I started using this technique with my own children and they’ve actually developed the thicker skin I tried so hard to develop in my son’s early years–because they have experienced empathy.

We also empathize with our children when we take a genuine interest in their lives. In doing so, we need to make a conscious effort not to force our own expectations onto them. Don’t expect your child to love playing soccer or the piano just because you did. Guide them toward activities that theyenjoy and that make them feel enriched.

4.Model it and point out when others display empathy. Our children look to us as empathy role models. They’ll notice if we treat a server poorly or if we engage in abrasive or passive aggressive communication with our spouse. On the flip side, they’ll notice if we treat people with dignity and respect by engaging in friendly conversation with the server or by speaking respectfully and with love to our spouse. They’ll also notice if we welcome a new family into the neighborhood or express genuine concern about a classmate’s family who is going through a difficult experience.

5.Provide opportunities outside of the home. Research shows we typically feel more empathy for members of our own group, so it’s relatively easy to feel empathy towards family members and close friends. Show your children that it’s equally as important to care about people outside of their inner circle. Seek out opportunities for you and your child to regularly engage in community service. In doing so, you are showing your child that you care about people from different backgrounds.

6.Teach them that their own happiness is not their sole priority. We all want our children to be happy, but we need to send the clear message that caring for others is just as important as their own happiness. Instead of saying ‘The most important thing is that you’re happy,’ try saying ‘The most important thing is that you are kind and happy.’ Say this often. It’s important our children recognize that the world does not revolve around them.

7. Ease up. The pressure for young people to continually achieve has also limited their ability to empathize. Adolescents are under tremendous pressure to excel in school and participate in extracurricular activities so they can build their resumes. As a result, our kids are looking out for themselves more than ever and do not have the time or energy to care about others.Instead of encouraging your son or daughter to be competitive and aggressive, encourage your child to compete with himself and strive to do his best rather than try to best others. And resist the urge to over schedule their free time. Our kids need downtime, too.

Make Kindness a Priority

One simple way that your can develop empathy in your child is to stress the importance of treating others with kindness.

-Encourage your child to perform one act of kindness for another person each day.These activities might include helping with dishes, letting someone else go first, drawing a picture or writing a thank you note, etc. Or they might include visits to places and experiences that make us feel good, like visiting grandparents or the park.
-Keep a kindness checklist.Tape it on the fridge and check off each act of kindness as you go.
-Make a kindness jar. Fill a jar with acts of kindness on strips of paper and your child can choose a new card each day.

Here are some printable resources to get you started.

40 Fresh and Creative Kid-Friendly Acts of Kindness

Showing That I Care: Acts of Kindness for all Age Groups

Printable Kindness Cards for Kids

Flood the Shore with Kindness Coloring Book for Kids of All Ages

Tessie Learns to Be Kind by Karen LeVasseur

Social media isn’t going anywhere. We need to accept that. We also need to accept that our role as parents is vastly more complex than that of our parents. Don’t let this discourage you. Above all else, remember that the development of empathy does not happen overnight. Take note of the good moments, discuss the not-so-good moments, and continue to model empathy in your own lives.

You may be saving an awkward girl with neon braces from a 7th grade year filled with trauma and embarrassment.

Mount Rushmore? Really? Facepalm.