24/07/2012 07:03 BST | Updated 18/09/2012 06:12 BST

Online Empathy - Erosion or Evolution?

Empathy can be expressed on a spectrum, and how a child responds to a given situation may depend on a range of different complex psychological and child development issues. For example a child on the autistic spectrum may not recognise that their online actions or behaviour may come across as inappropriately blunt.

What picture, or metaphor comes to mind, when you think of Empathy? A waiting outstretched hand, a mother stooping down to kiss a child's scraped knee, a silent long embrace at the end of a funeral service? It's different for different people because empathy by its very nature is uniquely personal. Indeed it requires a courageous leap of compassion to enter into another's personal world and imaginatively experience what that person is going through. Little wonder many of us are reluctant to go further than the sympathetic smile; true empathy involves vulnerability.

Actors and writers have always treasured the empathetic, as John Connolly writes in The Book of Lost Things, "Reading of fiction encourages us to view the world in new and challenging ways, it allows us to inhabit the consciousness of another which is a precursor to empathy, and empathy is, for me, one of the marks of a decent human being."

But you don't have to read books to consume fiction these days. Our newspapers are embellished with it, our Kindles are flickering with it, (in many Shades of Grey!) and our social networks - those places in which with we increasingly live and have our being - are syndicated streams of personal fiction. But does all this fiction and personal interaction actually lead to richer connection and a chance to demonstrate empathy? Does social networking - so much of it predicated on the quick 'boast by post', personal self-absorption - strengthen the depth and quality of our interaction or does it somehow erode and dilute our true connection and with it our ability to be truly present? Does the lack of eye contact and subtle nuances shared in face-to-face conversation create a shallowness even if we are busy on clicking the 'Like' buttons on "friends" photo or re-tweeting them so that they are trending on twitter?

Of course the question as to whether empathy can be taught or caught is an interesting one, as is the question of how social-emotional competence in children can be measured. Empathy can be expressed on a spectrum, and how a child responds to a given situation may depend on a range of different complex psychological and child development issues. For example a child on the autistic spectrum may not recognise that their online actions or behaviour may come across as inappropriately blunt. Furthermore a new emotional intelligence is required to understand meaning when it is removed from offline context.

Then there is the 'mash up' of online terms and phrases which can be problematic. Can you really be expected to show empathy to your online 'Friend' when he or she is someone who in reality you hardly know even as an acquaintance? Do we really expect depth of connection through a medium where responses are often made very quickly, sometimes anonymously and usually with a larger audience looking on? Children are growing up never having to lose a friend, but is quantity the same as quality and are relationships richer because of social networking?

Over the last 12 months I've had the privilege of working with some of the most isolated and vulnerable young people in the UK. Students who have been excluded from main stream schools and who are taught in Pupil Referral Units. The work entitled 'Munch Poke Ping' has looked at how these young learners are truly engaging with social mobile media and online games.

The work has involved running intensive workshops and film-making with the students. In the films (now being shared on YouTube) the students explore how it feels to be 'alone-together.' How they cope in their often fractured worlds and the ways in which they feel a sense of belonging and identity with online peers. Despite things going badly wrong like when they are "fraped" on Facebook, sworn at in multi-user 'Call of Duty' games, or experience the cold panic when those personal "sexting" conversations and pictures go viral, this is very much a place called home, and with the game changer - Blackberry Messenger, (BBM) - a mobile home. The identity, status, prestige and ability to influence your peers 24/7 means that a physical 'home' is just a concept for some!

On the last assignment I asked some of the students who they turn to when things go wrong online ? Would they turn to teachers, parents, cousins, police, Childline ? "No way!" came the almost unanimous response. "We'd only be able to turn to our mates, they're the only ones who understand and who could help." No loss of empathy there then!

Young actors in the latest 'Munch Poke Ping' film exploring how to cope online

These brave youngsters live in a parallel universe, one which now exists largely because of mobile technology. Even at night, sleep is an optional extra for those who crave constant connection with their peers. As one young student told me, "I go to sleep when my pinger's gone to sleep."

So back to the empathy question? Perhaps empathy and the way we show it is evolving. There are important developments which seem to reflect a broader empathetic movement. A sort of "kindness of the crowds". For example the inspirational website which was created in response to a number of students taking their own lives after being bullied in school in 2010 has today become a worldwide movement inspiring hope for LGBT young people facing harassment, and more than 50,000 user-created videos have been viewed more than 50 million times.

Other sites such as has as its strap line "Transforming the way you see yourself one Post-it note at a time" is a simple idea to create a way for young people to treasure what's beautiful offline and share it and inspire others online. The cynic might say that these initiatives are two inches thick and 100 miles wide and perhaps quantity is the trade off for quality and mass communication the exchange for deep personal friendship and intimacy. Nevertheless those in the digital diaspora who are isolated, victimised or whose battery life is low, can be enormous and for the isolated or vulnerable child, the recognition that someone has shown a 'like' or responded to a comment can change their world - if only for a Facebook moment.

I'm sure that there are very real ways in which the online anonymity and pranking around can erode empathy, but let's not exaggerate or simply blame the technology. It so depends on the individual and their values. For every example of the way in which empathetic expression is diluted I have found examples where young people in particular are using the technology in considerate, compassionate ways. As I say to students when I work with them in schools "What would Martin Luther King Jr. have done if he had had a Facebook account?"

We as adults need to start showing a bit of more empathy and understanding to the thumb generation. These skilled multi-tasker and multi-platform hoppers. We need to be empathetic and truly appreciate the irresistible pull to mobile networking and the new social location tools that these young people are exploiting and better understand the way they are transforming relationships and changing our understanding of empathetic behaviour.

Those working with vulnerable young people urgently need hands-on practical training to understand the 'grammar' and privacy issues of BBM and Facebook. They need greater support so that they can have the courage to renegotiate their professional practice and pilot new models of engagement without fear mongers constantly harking back to a bygone age. The PRUs I worked in were realising that simply banning mobile phones and social networking (as the Government seems to be currently advising schools) creates an arms race and ultimately an "unwinnable war". It is we adults who have dangled these powerful shiny tools in front of our youth. It is the United Nations who have just declared that Internet access and online freedom of expression are a basic human right!

I believe most young people today are just as caring, talented, courageous and sensitive to others as we were when we were young. Indeed they have greater potential to connect and act empathetically, especially when they see and experience the painfully opposite; the casual cruelty, bullying, greed and double standards. The paradox is that whilst the technology connects, it also amplifies the self-importance, narcissism, egotism, vanity, conceit. It's this and the pure selfishness which kills empathy and compassion, now where in the offline world have we seen that recently?

Stephen Carrick-Davies is a child advocate, writer and social entrepreneur.