Sherry Turkle explains how our reliance on technology can diminish our capacity for empathy

Social media has so many benefits, particularly for those working in the media industry. It has helped media practitioners become more accessible, reach new audiences, find sources, and engage with people in ways that they previously couldn’t.

It’s a powerful tool when used alongside, or in addition to, human interactions. But when it’s the primary interaction we have with people — our coworkers, our sources, our community — it can diminish our capacity to feel empathy.

This is according to new findings from Sherry Turkle, best known for her research on human relationships with technology. In her new book, “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” Turkle advocates for wi-fi free spaces, along with “sacred spaces” for face-to-face conversations.

Her reflections and findings are particularly relevant to the ongoing conversations about how empathy factors into storytelling.

“The empathy that I’m talking about is a psychological capacity to put yourself in the place of another person and imagine what they are going through,” Turkle told The Atlantic’s Lauren Cassani Davis in an interview published this week. “It has neurological underpinnings — we know that we’re ‘wired’ to do it, because when you put young people in a summer camp where there are no devices, within five days their capacity to watch a scene, and then successfully identify what the people in the scene might be feeling, begins to go back up again from being depressed when they first arrived, armed with their devices. We suppress this capacity by putting ourselves in environments where we’re not looking at each other in the eye, not sticking with the other person long enough or hard enough to follow what they’re feeling.

“I think social media is great. The question is, are we on a diet of social media that’s hurting our face-to-face conversation? And if we are, how can we put ourselves on a different kind of diet? That’s the conversation I’m trying to start.”

Social media is an excellent starting point for storytelling, but it shouldn’t ever replace shoe-leather, boots-on-the-ground reporting. It’s the in-person interviews that ultimately strengthen media practitioners’ connection to their sources, prompting them to ask different questions and improving their overall reporting and storytelling. Research has found that stories rooted in empathy — particularly longform ones — can prompt readers, viewers, and listeners to become more empathetic toward the people featured in the story.

The full Atlantic interview with Turkle is well worth the read.


Related story and video from ivoh’s annual media summit: How does empathy factor into storytelling?


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