From the ‘iPhone effect’ to the ‘virtual hug’: Is technology restricting or increasing our empathy?

Faced with a vast array of choice when it comes to interacting with those around us, our favoured communication medium will often be the simplest, quickest and most immediately available. But as technology continually develops, the impact of modern communication tools on the quality and depth of interpersonal exchange is increasingly the subject of scrutiny. Further, it remains unclear what increased digital interaction will mean for our social relationships. Of course, for some types of interactions we may actively seek out the least empathic means of communication. Text, email and socialmedia are popular means for initiating breakups in intimate relationships; they are simple, allow for a clear message, and importantly, avoid the empathic strain that comes from seeing the consequence of your words face-to-face. Yet for those relationships we want to maintain, the affective impact of our chosen communication method is worth considering.

Break-ups via social media avoid the sharing of empathy associated with visual cues

Break-ups via social media avoid the sharing of empathy associated with visual cues

The social presence theory, introduced by Short, Williams and Christie (1976), argues that the fewer the number of ‘cue systems’ in a communication method, the less ‘warmth and involvement’ users typically feel. This means that as the method of communication used becomes more distanced from ‘fully cued’ face-to-face interaction, the level of empathy felt between users reduces. Applied to computer-mediated communication (CMC), this would imply that video-based interaction would lend itself to greater empathic connection than just voice capabilities, which in turn would be emotionally stronger than just text. As a case-in-point, business executives commonly prefer to make important deals in a face-to-face environment instead of via any digital means; it allows for more opportunity to read and respond to the body language of the other party.

What is more, it is not just the explicit use of technology that impacts the quality of interpersonal conversation. The ‘iPhone effect’ is a commonly recognised problem, occurring when one person looking at their phone in a social environment has a contagious, anti-social effect, ultimately ending all conversation and eye contact. Indeed, even the symbolic nature of a mobile phone appears to be enough to reduce the quality of face-to-face interactions; research has found that the presence of a mobile phone, even when it does not belong to either party, reduces the empathy reportedly felt between two face-to-face communicators. This finding is attributed to a diversion of attention from the immediate exchange towards an item which symbolises instant information and hyper-connectivity, and makes individuals more likely to miss subtle cues, facial expressions and vocal inclinations. Thus, the social presence theory has explanatory power, and intuitively has merit.

However, the huge popularity of online forums, virtual games and online relationships indicate that in some contexts, digital methods may too lend themselves to the expression of empathy. The hyperpersonal model of CMC, introduced by Joseph Walther, proposes a set of processes to explain how CMC may create an environment where digital text-based communication lends itself to greater desirability and intimacy than equivalent offline interactions. Walther’s model outlines four components that contribute to the process: overattributions of recipient similarity; selective self-presentation and disclosure; thoughtful and reflective message construction; and the idealised impressions of others we interact with.

The anonymity that comes from text-based online communication creates a different dynamic for exchanges. In an anonymous environment, users can feel liberated from judgement on their words. Whilst personal profiles on social networks remain ever popular, giving an opportunity to present the individual in whichever way they choose, there has been a trend towards the use of anonymous social media, with the anonymous sharing apps ‘Whisper’ and ‘Pencourage’, dubbed the ‘anti-social real life Facebook’ attracting millions of users. The anonymity that is provided in online communities can facilitate deep, empathic connections, as it allows people to disclose more than they feel they would be able to in real life. This is attributed to reduced vulnerability, where what you may say or do online cannot be associated with the rest of your (offline) life. People do not have to worry about their non-verbal cues when typing a message; the fear of not using the right words, or losing control of ones emotions when speaking, is gone. This process may be particularly prevalent in online support communities, for example cancer support groups, which have been the subject of extensive research into how sensitive online messages are expressed and received.

Yet this anonymity does have a dark side. While the online disinhibition effect in some instances creates an environment for openness and support, the anonymity also lends itself to cyberbullying. ‘Yik Yak’, a localised anonymous sharing app, facilitated cyberbullying in high schools to such a degree that the creators had to respond by geofencing schools so the app could not be accessed on the premises. The mask of anonymity creates an environment where individuals don’t have to own their behaviour and it can be kept entirely separate from their offline identity. There are no repercussions for behaviour, and no clear authority. In addition, users are distanced from seeing the offline reactions to their online behaviour, creating an illusion that the two worlds are separate.

Online anonymity permits freedom to express oneself with no offline repercussions

Online anonymity permits freedom to express oneself with no offline repercussions

For better or for worse, digital communication is here to stay. Constantly developing technology allows for ever-changing methods of interaction with close friends and strangers alike, with huge potential for both increasingly life-like digital interactions and more creative text-based communication – but are these developments necessary to enhance communicative empathy? The dichotomy between the virtues and vices of digitised anonymity tends to sway to one side or the other depending on the context in which anonymity is afforded. The market for increasing empathy in digital interactions is clearly expanding, with more and more social cues being made possible via digital links. The idea of the ‘virtual hug’ has been popular in internet chatrooms for decades; now technology is making this a reality, with devices such as the Kickstarter project ‘Frebble’, a handheld accessory which allows two users to ‘hold hands’ regardless of their physical distance, now on the scene. In these cases, decreased anonymity is the goal. However, it should not be forgotten that there are some situations in which anonymity works positively for the expression of empathy, facilitating deeper disclosure on sensitive topics, where digital disinhibition is critical.



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