Are young people less empathetic?

I read about a new study that claims that college kids are about 40% less empathetic than their counterparts 20 or 30 years ago. This was a large study analyzing data on 14,000 college students. The results were obtained by asking students pretty straight-forward questions like how much they agree with the statement, “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective”. I answered the questionnaire myself, and it seemed hard to get a low score.

A 40% drop is huge, and the article in Science Digest speculated on why this might have occurred, fingering everything from violent video games to reality shows (which make entertainment of real humans’ problems) to Facebook as the culprits.

But I have to wonder if the results are right. All of the young people I know, from my sons’ friends to my nieces and nephews to people I work with, seem quite empathetic. Yes, they connect on Facebook in a somewhat superficial way, but that doesn’t mean they don’t connect with each other in real life, and they still seem to share and listen to each other as much as ever. Maybe I’m wrong. But I hope not.

I read about the study in New York Times’ columnist Charles M. Blow’s account of how he isn’t as personally connected to his neighbors as people used to be. But then, he lives in New York City. Maybe it’s different here in Minnesota. After all, Minneapolis is the number one city in the U.S. in terms of number of people who volunteer. And you don’t voluntarily give up your time and money to help someone else, whether it’s a child who needs help with reading in school, or a homeless family who needs a free meal, or a sick and lonely old person in a nursing home who needs a friend, unless you feel empathy for that person you’re helping.

Maybe young people today just self-report differently than they did in the past. Maybe when asked how much a statement such as “When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective towards them” describes themselves, they chose the second-highest option on the five-point scale, for some reason. Maybe they’re more cynical about being surveyed. Maybe they’re more honest. Maybe they’re thinking, “It depends on why that person is being taken advantage of.”

I would really love to hear from young people: how accurate do you feel this study is?

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