Science scene: American Psychological Association study finds link between empathy barriers and cyberbullying

Ellen Airhart

One hundred forty characters composed in 20 seconds can ruin someone’s day. 

Nearly half of all adolescents have experienced online bullying, according to a study by the American Psychological Association. 

 The study, which looked at the connection between empathy and cyberbullying, broke empathy into three main cognitive processes.  

The first is an emotional response. When observers notice someone else suffering, similar painful feelings are activated in their own body.

The second process is more sophisticated. Observers imagine the other person’s perspective and metaphorically spend some time in their shoes. 

In the third process, the brain suppresses its own emotional response, so observers are not overwhelmed by their feelings.

Empathetic responses are compromised when there is a screen between participants in a social interaction. The first process of emotional response is significantly dampened when the sufferer is not within sight or earshot. About 90 percent of an emotional message is nonverbal, according to the book “Emotional Intelligence” by psychologist Daniel Goleman. 

Facial expressions, especially, can transmit crucial information about how a person is reacting to an experience. The cyberbully is less likely to understand and be affected by the emotional pain of the victim.

 Forty-one percent of adolescent cyberbullies reported they “did not feel anything” as a result of their actions, according to a study in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. Only 16 percent felt guilty. 

Although the bully’s empathetic response is limited, the effect on the victim is still significant. In the same study, about 80 percent of adolescents reported that online bullying affected their day-to-day life.

“There are so many studies out there that show being bullied predicts lower performance in academics, less secure relationships, anxiety, depression and other negative outcomes,” said Haeyeon Lee, psychology graduate student who is researching the causes of bullying.

 Not all online situations are, however. A study in the journal Virtual Reality showed that 81 percent of online communities had some sort of empathetic message. 

For example, in an online community of runners dealing with knee injuries, people left new and struggling members kind and thoughtful messages, such as “Keep your chin up,” and “Don’t lose faith.” 

The amount of empathy in an online community depends on its purpose and the gender of its participants, according to the same study. Comments on message boards with a higher proportion of women were less aggressive. The presence of a moderator who regulates and deletes comments in an online community increased empathy and decreased hostility among its users. 

While social media platforms don’t have moderators as other online communities do, executives are taking note of the effects of cyberbullying. Organizations such as Twitter have vowed to take steps to create platforms where users feel safe.  

“We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years,” Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said in an internal memo cited in The Verge. 

Scientists at UT aren’t giving up on putting an end to bullying. Lee said the research team she’s a part of is confident there are viable ways to solve this issue.

“Bullying is a complex problem,” Lee said. “We are trying to find a subtler way to change mindsets.”