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Empathy Download

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The findings from a study published last week which found that "more than half of the UK population claim to be contemplating revenge and that social networks are the preferred platform for getting even," should not come as any surprise, especially to those who constantly live their lives online.

What did we do before Facebook and Twitter? Were we more tolerant and polite or perhaps just more repressed? Yes these platforms have made it easier and quicker to settle scores, but do these new online tools actually fuel people's thirst for revenge? The 'boast by post' status updates, vanity tools, have made confrontation and getting even easier, (especially if you hide behind anonymity), but it can be more subtle than that, many have now made slippery sarcasm an art form.

They not just hide behind the screen, but behind the "it was just a bit of fun" excuse for downright cruelty. Funny it may be to them but it can cause distress and lead to a cycle of further recriminations, exposure and , paradoxically - with so many 'friends' - the feeling of being cut off and abandoned. Interesting to note than that the same study found that 14% of the 18 to 24-year-olds questioned said they would be more offended if someone "defriended" them on Facebook than if they stopped speaking to them. Being a member of an anti-social network can be a lonely experience.

The question about how our offline world affects us is a contentious issue. When I asked a group of excluded young people last month about what was the worst thing about being online, it wasn't the fear of predators or identity theft, it was "When the French come online and start swearing at us" (a reference to the interaction of playing Call of Duty over an internet game console). It wasn't the fantasy violence but the personal insults. It was the personal rejection which can really kill!

Most young people I talk to are able to distinguish between fantasy violence and real life action but we mustn't generalise as the internet I believe, can amplify certain offline vulnerabilities. Even for those most hardened.

One staff member explained. "Many of the excluded young people that I work with play adult computer games. Although they may be 14 years of age some of them have an emotional development age of a seven-year-old, so playing an 18 rated game is a real jump for these kids. When I was seven years old, I loved playing WW2 games we'd shoot each other and have to play dead, but of course we knew it wasn't real and could get up again! It's really important for us to similarly contextualise and not exaggerate the impact of the fantasy violence in these games, but perhaps focus more on the conversations, the promotion of criminality, abuse and sexist messages which many of these games promote. I don't think many teachers are aware of these aspects of the games"


Students and Staff from The Bridge Academy in West London share how they feel about online games.

If we really want to care about online influences and behaviour and stem the tide of casual cruelty, anti-social behaviour and glamorisation of violence, we can't simply blame the tools or new interactive social media and games. No, what we need is to start to creatively rekindle our understanding of empathy for a connected e-world. You can't download this as a plug-in, or a patch, Just as a programme like "Roots of Empathy" introduced a live baby to help children re-connect and gain an empathetic understanding and connect with their feelings so we now need a new understanding, a new "e-pathy" to remind us of our humanity and curb the actions of many internet users who risk becoming "comfortably numb."

Being kind can be cool, we as adults need to remember this and model it in what we do online today. The amazing new platforms which enable us to connect must not be used to create greater divisions, mistrust, pain and resentment. Getting even may be a human trait but let's not make it a sport.

Stephen Carrick-Davies is an independent E-safety advocate, social entrepreneur and writer. His recent film with excluded young people explores the issues of under-age use of online games see www.munchpokeping.com

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