A Surprising Way to Help Children and Adults Harness Empathy

October 20, 2017
Sue Scheff
Two pairs of hands clasped together.

Researchers at the University of Michigan have spent over 30 years surveying first-year college students, and found that empathy has declined by 40 percent in the last three decades—while narcissism has risen by 58 percent. “Depersonalization is what’s happening,” says Dr. Michele Borba, bestselling author of the book UnSelfie. “In a lot of these cyberbullying cases, the person is hundreds of miles away; you’ll never be face-to-face. It becomes an easy click."

Whether online or in-person, no parent ever wants to think their child is the bully or the culprit of cruelty. One mom came up with a creative teaching tool for her own daughter—the Toothpaste Challenge.

She gave her daughter a full tube of toothpaste and asked her to squirt it out onto a plate. When she finished, the mother calmly asked her to put the toothpaste back into the tube.

Her daughter immediately starting exclaiming, "I can't!" and "It won't be like it was before!"

Her mother replied:

You will remember this plate of toothpaste for the rest of your life. Your words have the power of life or death. As you go into middle school, you are about to see just how much weight your words carry. You are going to have the opportunity to use your words to hurt, demean, slander, and wound others. You are also going to have the opportunity to use your words to heal, encourage, inspire, and love others.

You will occasionally make the wrong choice; I can think of three times this week I have used my own words carelessly and caused harm. Just like this toothpaste, once the words leave your mouth, you can’t take them back. Use your words carefully. When others are misusing their words, guard your words. Make the choice every morning that life-giving words will come out of your mouth. Decide tonight that you are going to be a life-giver in middle school. Be known for your gentleness and compassion. Use your life to give life to a world that so desperately needs it. You will never, ever regret choosing kindness.

But this wisdom isn’t just for children. Adults are equally culpable in the existence of a culture of shaming and cruelty, particularly on the Internet.

Galit Breen received a barrage of verbal abuse and humiliation simply for including photos of herself on her wedding day in an editorial she wrote for the Huffington Post about secrets to a happy marriage. At first deeply wounded by the experience, she ultimately penned a response, and has since continued to turn her negative experience into a call to arms for greater kindness online. In her 2015 TEDx Talk, Raising a Digital Kid without Having Been One, she pleads with parents to emphasize empathy when raising their kids:

We hold in our hands the missing piece between the good, kind, smart kids who we know and love, and those very same kids who are being so reckless with themselves and with each other online. That missing piece is short, direct, repeated, ongoing conversations, not about how to become bully proof, but about how to make sure that they’re the ones who are not doing the bullying… We can teach them that there is a difference between intent and impact. How loud and permanent the Internet is, and that there is no such thing as online privacy, but there is a difference between fighting issues and people. And we can teach them that on the other side of every single interaction that they have online is a real human being.

Kids are impressionable. What goes in their ears will now not only come out of their mouths, but it also goes on their screens. Parents need to be aware of their own behavior both offline and online. Empathy can be cultivated, and we can lead the way at home and in the world with our actions as adults.

In addition to taking time to talk to your children about the value of empathy in all our exchanges, online and off, I also recommend these three tips for online behavior—children and adults can make the world a safer, kinder place with these strategies:

  • Conduct: Control yourself—remember that there's a person on the other side of the screen. We constantly hear people say, “Think before you post.”

    I urge you to pause before you post. With a pause, you must mindfully check in with yourself. We're all guilty of multi-tasking, so let's truly stop, take a beat, and consider before posting, sharing, or sending content online. 
  • Content: Limit what you post.
    Ask yourself honestly—will this content embarrass or humiliate you or someone else? Keep in mind, there's a difference between clever and cruel, and the translation online can be blurred.
    If you're not exactly sure about what you're about to share, especially if it's an emoji, it's best to just click out. 
  • Caring: It simply goes back to the old proverb we all heard time and again growing up—if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it at all.
    Ask yourself honestly—are you posting or sharing with empathy? Our failure to instill empathy has created a culture that enables cruelty. This has never been truer than it is today, and particularly when it comes to your digital life.

My mantra? “When in doubt, it’s time to click out.”

After being victimized online and cyber-stalked due to her advocacy work with troubled teens, Sue Scheff won a 2006 landmark case for internet defamation and invasion of privacy. Since then, her name and voice have become synonymous with helping others who have been victims of online abuse as well as educating people of all ages about the importance of good digital citizenship and protecting their online reputation. Her latest book, Shame Nation, provides practical advice for what each of us can do in our families and communities to promote a healthier, safer digital environment for all.

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