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Has the Pandemic Created an Empathy Deficit?

After a year of crises, young people are turning to social media to reconnect with others.

by Pooja Shah
May 3, 2021 | Living
Two humans head silhouette psycho therapy concept. Empathy, social media, Rewire, PBS
Credit: Paul Craft // Adobe

As the nationwide rollout of the COVID vaccine signals the return of some semblance of normalcy, it's a fitting time to reflect on the shock, devastation and loss that the past year has caused.

Let's be honest. Countless people suffered a spectrum of painful experiences, whether it was losing a loved one, being unemployed, facing COVID complications, or enduring a decline in mental health. 

And those weren't the only challenges — there was also a contentious presidential election, racial and social unrest, and the ongoing climate crisis.

As of early May 2021, nearly 600,000 Americans have died from coronavirus. It's a staggering statistic. Yet, given everything that has transpired during the past year and our constant exposure via the news and social media, we may be growing desensitized to devastating events. The lack of social interaction during the pandemic may also be contributing to an empathy deficit, particularly among young people.

Rising fatigue, declining empathy

The beginning of the pandemic created an urgent sense of camaraderie. People were inclined to help others, partly because there was a growing recognition of our shared sense of isolation and fear. 

Over time, though, those feelings of empathy and the ability to understand and share others' feelings declined as COVID-19 fatigue settled in. 

"Initially there was a lot of empathy and a concerted effort to be understanding or be compassionate," said Saurav Dutt, author and political analyst. "But, as time has passed and frustration has set in, I've found myself to be far more impatient, less empathetic, and far more direct with people — even strangers."

"Sometimes it's not intentional, but the baggage of the days, weeks, and months become more oppressive, and because of the pandemic you're realizing just how precious your time is."

Social interaction as a pressure valve for young people

Younger folks may be feeling this disconnect and exhaustion more than older generations. Some experts believe that a variety of factors have led them to be more prone to experiencing empathy deficit.

"Millennials are recognized as the first generation that are automatically not able to have a better lifestyle than their parents. Unlike boomers, millennials have massive raises in tuition costs and less financial stability," said Sally Baker, a London-based therapist and author. 

"Of course there are other social, cultural, fiscal and psychological challenges and expectations. With COVID, there's another layer of added pressure. Because millennials are under so much pressure, they can't spare any empathy for anyone else."

The pandemic may have exacerbated certain pressures young adults were increasingly feeling over the past decade. 

A sad woman touches her temples with her hands and suffers from pain. Empathy, social media, Rewire, PBS
The pandemic may have exacerbated certain pressures young adults were increasingly feeling over the past decade.   |  Credit: Mary Long // Adobe

"COVID stole the narrow bit of pleasure that millennials were enjoying by going out, dating and doing things apart from work," Baker said.

"They are no longer exposed to serendipitous conversations with people at bars, cinemas, coffee shops, and are trapped in their bubble. The thing about empathy is that you can't express it or have it if you are under pressure yourself."

Those human interactions that thread a society together have been wrecked by the pandemic. It is difficult to foster a genuine connection when the options are limited. Higher levels of stress, coupled with the lack of opportunities to relate with others, lowers our ability to empathize. 

"I prefer face-to-face communication over phone calls, WhatsApp messages, video calls or Zoom," said Yaourou Konaté Lehrmann, a London-based model. 

"I like to look into people's eyes when I talk to them and sense their energies. When you can put yourself in someone else's shoes, it allows you to be unbiased, caring and generous. You are more likely to be understanding rather than judging."

The pandemic made these types of in-person encounters, especially ones free of masks and social distancing, extremely difficult, if not impossible. Yet, as social beings, we need to associate with others. 

Regaining our capacity for empathy through social media

Is it possible to strengthen our ability to empathize given the ongoing circumstances of the pandemic?

Baker believes so. 

"Empathy is a skill that can be learned. We initially learn empathy and resilience in childhood, though that's not always the case," she said. 

"Building empathy now means to remind ourselves of the trials and tribulations that others face. There are self-soothing options like watching certain types of movies and TV shows on Netflix or reading books, which is rarer these days. Social media is another tool."

Sheena Yap Chan, author and host of the "The Tao of Self Confidence" podcast, agrees that social media can be used as a temporary substitute for physical interaction.

"Since most of the world is on lockdown we have turned to the internet to speak with others, whether it's through Zoom or social media. Apps like Clubhouse have been great to create rooms and safe spaces for people, especially women, to chat about their issues," she said. 

"It's very important to empathize with others because it shows others that whatever we are feeling is normal and that we are not alone. Many people are stuck at home and our mental health issues have heightened because of it."

For young people, especially, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok are channels through which they can share messages of support with friends and strangers as they try to regain this fading capacity to care for others. It's a conscious effort to choose to stay safely connected.

After all, empathy, at its simplest, is paying attention to others and understanding their frame of reference.

"Empathy is vital to understand where people are coming from, their moral stance, and their attitude to different events," Dutt said. "We measure our way in the world with our reactions and treatment of others, friends, family or perfect strangers."

Pooja Shah
Pooja Shah is a freelance writer living in New York City. She writes on social justice, culture, gender inequality and women's rights. Visit www.pooja-shah.com for more of her work.
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