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Three ways to teach kids to find compassion and empathy behind the screen

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A 14-year-old storms into my office, her face flushed and her eyes wide. As tears begin to spill from her eyes, she reads text messages from a group of friends she has known since kindergarten. The messages are hateful, accusatory and downright unkind. They continue to roll in as she sits on my couch. When her emotions overwhelm her and she can no longer read the words on the screen, she powers down her phone and hands it to me for the remainder of her session.

This is not the first instance of a teen or tween falling apart in my office because of mean-spirited texts, social media posts or email messages, and I worry it won’t be the last. Modern teenagers love their digital communication. In some cases, the digital connection can save lives. The problem is, it can also destroy them.

Two recent reports paint a fairly grim picture of the modern teen. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics of adolescents in the greater Montreal area draws a connection between spending too much time scrolling through social media and watching TV and increased symptoms of depression. A federal report from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that 20 percent of students in grades 9 through 12 reported that they were bullied during 2016-2017 school year, with 15 percent bullied online or by text.

One thing I see over and over when students share texts and social media interactions with me is a stark lack of empathy and compassion behind the screen. Groups of kids target another kid without stopping to think about how their comments might affect the person on the other end. For many kids, even just one or two comments can be devastating.

John Duffy, clinical psychologist and author of “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety,” observes similar patterns of digital communication in his work with teenagers. “I often find social media, texting and maybe Snapchat in particular, to be the teen and tween road rage of the Internet,” Duffy says. “It’s far easier to communicate free of compassion and empathy when you are not looking someone in the eye, when you are not in their presence.”

There is a healthy balance to be found between face-to-face or voice-to-voice communication and connecting predominantly through a screen. The challenge is helping teens find that balance and learn to be mindful of how their quips and responses affect others.

“Social media and texting are fine for brief communication or taking care of business: setting up a time or place to meet, sharing a quick meme or in-joke, and so on,” Duffy says. “The shorthand of texting and Snapchat allows for that. It’s fast, easy and convenient. They tend not to be the most effective venues for communicating deep emotional thoughts about relationships, on the other hand.”

Teens can learn to practice empathy through a screen by examining the statements they see as they scroll through texts and social media every day, and by using their voices to amplify the message on the screen. When kids step back and look at what they passively endure and how that might affect another person, they learn to think twice before posting and use empathetic and positive phrases instead of snarky comments.

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I spend a fair amount of time helping tweens and teens use their screens in a healthy and positive way. This is how I teach them to focus on compassion and empathy, even when they feel as if they are under attack through the screen.

The back-to-back challenge. Ever get lost in YouTube clips of “Jimmy Kimmel Live’s” “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets” segment? While the show makes light of the cruel tweets people send to celebrities, it also highlights that words have consequences, and words hurt.

I use a similar tactic with teens when helping them understand how their choices on their devices might hurt (or help) someone. Lecturing teens about using their phones nonstop for communication is likely to result in defensiveness. They know that phone use is a constant source of worry for their parents, and they don’t want to hear about the latest research on the matter.

Reading through posts and texts with them, however, can be powerful. I ask my teens to sit back to back with me and read their texts/posts to their friends out loud. Yes, I get some eye rolls and awkward laughter at first, but later, something positive happens. When they hand me the phone to read the conversations back to them, they hear their own words (and things said by their friends) in a real voice. They hear the hurt, the anger, the sadness or the jealousy. They feel the emotions differently.

When they read or write the words on a tiny screen, they can use emotional detachment to avoid experiencing the feelings attached to those words. But when we sit back to back, two humans reading texts and posts aloud, they absorb the emotions. When the words are negative, they struggle to read them out loud. But when the words are positive, teens soften a bit.

Practice with notes. We all know that practice makes proficient, but when it comes to communicating in short bursts, we rarely practice the most effective ways to share our thoughts and feelings while tapping into empathy and compassion for the person on the other end of the screen. There are no retakes when it comes to putting thoughts to the screen and hitting send, so teens need to learn how to say what they mean, in a healthy way, on the first attempt.

I ask my teens to use the notes app on their phones to verbalize their concerns before they type them into a message or social media post. By doing this, they can pause and read the words out loud. More often than not, when teens do this, they spend more time thinking about what they mean to say.

Duffy employs a similar strategy with his teen clients, saying, “The metric I ask kids to consider: Write as if the person you’re referring to is reading your text or message. Be kind.”

Be prepared to listen. Teens will approach their parents for help with social issues if they believe their parents will listen without judgment. Given that teens use screens to communicate with one another, they sometimes turn to other teens with complex emotions and mental health concerns, including feelings of anxiety and/or depression. Teens need to know that their parents will help when something feels scary or overwhelming.

“No child should ever feel responsible for the well-being of another, so it is imperative, I feel, that parents talk to their kids about this, and insist they come to them (without fear of consequence) so adults can intervene,” Duffy says.

The best way to show your teens that you are there to help is to listen with empathy. Let your teens talk until they run out of things to say, then show compassion by asking how you can help and brainstorming solutions together.

Helping teens learn to find compassion and empathy behind the screen starts at the top. When parents listen and model compassion (including with screen use), their teens do learn to do the same.

Katie Hurley is a child and adolescent psychotherapist and parenting educator, and the author of the new book “No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident and Compassionate Girls.” You can find her on Twitter and on her blog, Practical Parenting.

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