The XX Factor

Plug Kids In for Fun and Empathy?

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Is online really the opposite of offline? The answer seems obvious. If you’re on Facebook, you’re not talking face-to-face with your friends—unless one is leaning over you while you type. If you’re using an iPhone app, you’re not out hiking in the woods—unless you’re using the app to identify a fallen leaf, or name the mountains that have suddenly come into view over the horizon. And if you’re learning to interact with your peers online in a chat room, you’re not doing a thing for your ability to intereact in reality—except that maybe you are.

In the Wall Street Journal, columnist Shirley Wang explores several research studies in which social scientists find that “time spent online may be helping people learn to be more empathetic and to make more friends in real life.” Students learn to lead and appear less anxious in chat rooms. They show empathy on Facebook and heavier users (even those who reported low self esteem otherwise) report a stronger sense of connection with their live community. In the New York Times, Bruce Feiler reported on his “Plugged-In Summer” of using Facebook to identify birds, entertaining family with vacation-related trivia (“a debate still rages over who was the ‘Benedict’ in Eggs Benedict”) and finding home remedies for gardening problems. His anecdotal comments supported the work of the social scientists: “I still found an occasional, virtual interaction with a friend or family member to be as pleasant as running into them on the beach.”

Of course, Feiler is an adult, with a network of flesh-and-blood connections developed before summer camps needed rules about smartphones. But those studies suggest that Facebook et al.—the so-called shallows of connectivity—may actually deepen the friendships of our kids, without adding to a risk of bullying. In other words, their online experiences may not be that different than ours, and many adults are finding that after a few years of smartphone and laptop connectivity, we’ve made it work within our lives instead of allowing it to take over. Adults fear that the behind-your-back nature of online communication allows kids to say things about one another that they wouldn’t say in person, but research shows most bullies are still old-school, with most bullying taking place in person. And, most heartening: Two-thirds of kids who are bullied online say they “don’t find it upsetting.” In this new, optimistically interconnected off-and-online view of the world, it’s probably because they’re too busy connecting with their other, more empathetic friends to care.