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Can Social Media Improve Our Empathy?

My Facebook newsfeed is covered with French flags; my Twitter feeds display the #prayforparis. And as I continue to process the events of November 13, 2015, in my mind — how I feel about them, how I will explain terrorism to my son, how they will shape the future — I question social media’s role.

On September 11, 2001, social media wasn’t as prevalent as it is now. On that day, stunned, I drove to work (I lived in Los Angeles) and I talked about what had happened, how I felt, and I listened to my colleagues express their disbelief, heartache, and whatever else they were thinking and feeling. We conversed.

When I talk to New Yorkers today (many of whom are strangers to me) about that time in the city I now call home, they tell me that they experienced the same type of interactions — though for a longer period of time than we on the west coast did. They talked to friends, family, neighbors, and strangers about the despair that blanketed the city.

How does changing our profile pictures, sending tweets with hashtags and photoshopped images, and broadcasting how we feel in 140 characters or less make us support and empathize with others? I am not sure it does.

Science doesn’t seem to think so either. Thanks to social media, our connections to other humans has decreased, and this is unfortunate. “Human connections are how our empathy is developed,” said Diedra L. Clay, PsyD, chair and associate professor of the counseling and health psychology department at Bastyr University when I spoke with her for this article on happiness. In fact, there are neurons in our brain, called nearer neurons, that form and help us learn how to have compassion. Without these we tend to have no remorse for our actions — which could be the reason why we see murders by teenagers, and 22% of high school students report being bullied — and have a difficult time identifying our emotions.

Honestly, it’s easier to insert a template or send a graphic than examine what we are feeling. Instead, open up and start a dialogue with your friends near and far, who have been a part of your life at different times and in different places.

Some of my friends have shared photos of their time in Paris. One of my friends shared a picture drawn by an artist that was an expression of his feelings to the terror last night. Her accompanying message with this:

“I’m not eloquent enough to express my anger and sadness with words about yesterday. But art can. Art makes the world a cool and beautiful place.”

We don’t have to be eloquent, just honest with ourselves and our friends/followers. The best way we can grieve together and support one another is to talk to each other — even if it is through social media. Maybe if we can focus on the pain, we find ways that it doesn’t happen again.

Photo by Svilen Milev, Courtesy of


  1. Facebook is the worst. It tricks you into thinking you’ve interacted with people, that you’re connected, but the truth is it makes you more isolated.


    • In many ways I believe you are right, but also think that it has to do with the people you “friend” on Facebook. I tend to be very choosy about who I friend. As a result, I have been able to reconnect with some old friends even though I am thousands of miles away from where we met.

      I don’t know the answer to making social media networks work. Maybe focusing on the quality of our connections (and would be connections) instead of quality may help.

      Liked by 1 person

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