The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The digital world is warmer than you think. Here’s how social media builds empathy

In this photo illustration the Social networking site Facebook is reflected in the eye of a man on March 25, 2009 in London, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

I saw it all in my newsfeed this week: a former roommate gave birth (to twins!), a friend raised money to rebuild his home after a fire, a grad school professor started chemotherapy for lymphoma and his digital support group, “#downwithlumpy,” went viral. I liked, donated, tweeted, commented and prayed over those updates. I witnessed the circle of life, beamed through my smartphone. But was I really making a difference? Social media and digital technology are seeping into the biggest moments of our lives–not to mention into the monotony of everyday events. Now, researchers have begun digging more deeply into how this new connectivity is transforming us and our relationships, just as experts are beginning to ponder how we can use these digital technologies to help us live more meaningful and compassionate lives.

A typical Facebook user, “has more close friends; has more trust in people; feels more supported; and is more politically involved,” compared to non-social media users and those who use the site infrequently, the Pew Research Center has previously found.

Contrary to the popular narrative, even many younger Americans see social media as a place where they find meaning.  A 2013 study found that teenagers often feel that social media helps them to deepen their relationships with others.

How’s that for a status update? Here’s some more thinking on how social media may contribute to the  social good.

First of all, it can reduce stress levels: A new Pew survey released last month found that not only is social media use not generally associated with increased stress for most users, but that “women who use Twitter, email and cellphone picture sharing report lower levels of stress” than those who do not use the technologies.

This isn’t always true, but that’s not bad news either:  Pew reports that exposure to difficult events in the lives of others through social media can cause increased levels of stress, particularly in women, a phenomenon sometimes called “the cost of caring.” So as social media makes you increasingly aware of events in other people’s lives, you can wind up feeling more emotionally wound-up in their well being. “‘The cost of caring’ is that you feel stuff about other people. It’s not entirely clear that feeling stuff about other people is worse than not having had that feeling at all,” explains Lee Rainie director of Internet, science and technology research at the Pew Research Center. Knowledge that disturbs you can also empower you to reach out and act in support, thus giving your own life a little bit more purpose and meaning.

“In the grand scheme of communities and society, there’s probably a pretty good case to make that being aware of the good and the bad just makes you a little bit better a friend and a little bit more tuned into what’s going on around you,” Rainie said. “That might be a better thing, even for the cost of it, than being disengaged.”

Indeed, with bigger social networks comes greater social responsibility, says Claire Díaz-Ortiz, an early employee of Twitter and author of Twitter for Good: Change the World One Tweet at a Time.”

“The best thing we can do is likely to realize that living in an online world means that we have larger social networks, and thus larger social obligations, than our forefathers,” Díaz-Ortiz explains in an email. “We need to realize the greater obligation to share our empathy since we are more informed about other’s struggles.”

Social media also gives us new ways to show our empathy. Until Mark Zuckerberg takes Diaz Ortiz’s suggestion and comes up with an  ‘Empathy’ button to replace the one-note ‘Like, ‘  users can follow up with a deeper expression of support via private message to a friend or relative or a donation to an online fundraiser. At other times, empathizing online could mean responding to a news story by promoting a cause or a hashtag. Díaz-Ortiz called#jesuischarlie “an incredible example” of the power of mass empathy.  And when it comes to someone in your physical orbit, reaching out with a visit or old-fashioned phone call are great alternatives.

One way to inhabit the compassionate digital community we crave when we can’t be there? Start creating it.