Facebook Use and Empathy
Social media usage has reached a height in widespread popularity. This has potentially changed the way the socializing happens, and relationships are formed. Although research is scarce, there has been increasing popularity in researching the effects of social media, including the effects that forms of social media have on the development of being empathetic towards others. Facebook is one of these platforms. Facebook allows for sharing of information, ads and interaction with other people known by the user. There has been question as to if the amount of time a person spends on Facebook can have a relation to their level of empathy as opposed to someone who does not spend a significant amount of time on Facebook. This research explored how empathy relates to the amount of time a person spends using the social media site Facebook. It was hypothesized that increased Facebook usage would lead to an increase in empathy. Although data did support this hypothesis overall, results were found to be inconclusive.
A coworker recently shared a status about the passing of her father in which she noted this life changing occurrence and reminisced about his life. In no time at all her status, as they are called, was filled with notes of sympathetic feelings and compassion for her loss. Friends shared messages of understanding and support through this time in her life. This meant her friends were capable of showing “virtual empathy” which is defined as empathy that happens as a result of computer mediated communication (Carrier et al., 2015). But does use of Facebook help or hurt a person’s empathy?
In recent years, social media has become one of the main methods of communication and an important staple in the lives of most people today. In fact, it is so important in our lives that people who were born in 1980 on are now becoming what is known as the “Net generation” (Carrier et al., 2015). In addition to communicating content can be shared across these websites. One such social networking site is Facebook. With over one billion users, Facebook has become one of the leading websites for viewing and sharing information. It is estimated that 92% of people who use social media are members of this popular site (Hollenbaugh & Ferris, 2014). Facebook typically consists of adding people you know as friends so that they can see what you share. Users have the ability to view their personal page, comment back and forth and send private messages to one another. Many users find themselves checking Facebook several times throughout the day and spending several hours each day involved with the website. However, with lack of personal face to face communication there is a real fear that the ability to show true empathy towards one another is being lost. In a study by Errasti et al. (2017) it was found that Facebook users actually score high in empathy, so there is a possibility this could be an empty fear.
Empathy is defined as the ability to borrow the feelings of another person in order to understand them, while keeping your own identity (Kalisch, 1973). It is also understanding another person’s perspective and having the ability to have an emotional response to it. Having empathy can also mean a person feels pain if someone else is hurting emotionally. Those who exhibit empathy towards someone in distress may have a greater ability to help them overcome what they are going through (Collins, 2014). Empathy is key to being emotionally aware and relating to those around us. Social interactions help to build this trait of empathy (Vossen & Valkenburg, 2016). Many researchers propose that social media has a large negative impact on empathy. One of the reasons why is that social media provides an easy platform to negatively attack people, businesses and situations. The ability to follow what is popular is masses makes this situation worse and users find themselves straying away from sharing feelings with others. People also can develop what is known as “compassion fatigue”, where the amount of negativity on their feeds leads them to feel less empathy because they are over exposed to it. Many people post negative life events to gain attention on platforms like Facebook when these things happen, which is thought to be possibly desensitizing users to feelings of empathy (Masten, 2016). However, the small amount of research that is being conducted actually refutes these claims. In a study by Vossen and Valkenburg, it was found that those who use social media more often had an increase in their empathy scores over the course of a year empathy (Vossen & Valkenburg, 2016). In an additional study by Collins, both amount of time spent on Facebook and Facebook usage in general led to better scores in empathy.
With increased time on the web making it more convenient to use it as a platform for communicating, there is a concern that in person interactions are becoming obsolete. Social media use and how it relates to a person’s empathy is a topic of discussion that is gaining increased popularity. This ability to connect can boast both positive and negative consequences (Collins, 2014). Although fear that social media may cause a decrease in empathy is a topic of concern, there has been little research done to back up these claims. Researchers are showing that social media usage may actually have a positive impact on empathy.
Purpose of the Study
The purpose of this study is to look at the possible effects that increased Facebook use has on empathy. The researcher hopes to discover results that will contribute to existing research in this area as well as benefit future research regarding social media. Additionally, the researcher hopes to add an important contributing study to the theory that Facebook usage positively impacts a person’s empathy.
Research Questions and Hypothesis
The guiding question of this research is: question “Do people who use Facebook more frequently have less empathy that those who use Facebook less frequently?” In addition, this guiding question, survey questions and their results among participant population were used to analyze the results. These questions are as follows:
1. Basic Empathy Scale (BES) questions.
2. On average, how many hours do you spend on Facebook each day?
3. On average, how many times a day do you check Facebook?
It was hypothesized that:
1. An increase in time spent on Facebook per day would lead to an increase in empathy.
2. The amount of times a person checks Facebook in a day will lead to an increase in empathy.
The participants were 386 adults recruited from a large metropolitan city in Northern California. There were 328 participants who identified as females, 55 participants who identified as males, and two participants identified as gender non-binary. The age range for the sample was 18 to 86 years (M = 33.49, SD = 12.64). In regard to educational attainment, 4 participants had less than a high school degree, 155 had a high school diploma or equivalent, 75 had an associate’s degree, 98 had a bachelor’s degree, and 52 participants had a graduate or professional degree.
Materials and Measures
Data were collected using an online survey. The survey included questions about empathy, Facebook, other social media outlets and social media habits.
Empathy. Empathy was measured using Jolliffe and Farrington’s (2006) 20-item Basic Empathy Scale (BES). Participants rated each item on a 5-point Likert type scale (1 = strongly disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = neither agree nor disagree, 4 = agree, and 5 = strongly agree). Nine items assessed cognitive empathy (e.g., “I can understand my friend’s happiness when s/he does well at something”) and 11 items assessed affective empathy (e.g., “after being with a friend who is sad about something, I usually feel sad”). After reverse-coding eight negatively worded items, participants’ ratings were summed across all 20 items. Participants’ scores could range from 20 (low in empathy) to 100 (high level of empathy). Reliability analyses indicated good reliability (Cronbach’s ?± = .82) (See figure 1).
Hours a day spent using Facebook. Participants Facebook use was measured using survey questions about Facebook. The question asked, “How many hours on average do you spend using Facebook per day?” Participants could choose between four options (less than 1 hour, 1-2 hours, 3-4 hours and 4+ hours). It was hypothesized that an increase in hours a day spent on Facebook would lead to an increase in empathy (See table 1).
Times per day Facebook is checked. The amount of times a user checks Facebook a day were also analyzed through using a survey question. This question asked, “On average, how many times a day do you check Facebook?” Participants could again choose between four options (0-2 times, 3-5 times, 6-8 times and more than 8 times). It was again hypothesized that increase in the amount of time a person checks Facebook in a day will lead to an increase in empathy (See table 2).
Participants were recruited through word of mouth and using status posts on Facebook itself. The survey was shared through social media by researchers from a Sacramento State University research class and was open to peers, friends and family members of these students. Participants were given informed consent before beginning the survey and decided to take the survey on a volunteer basis. Identity of participants remained anonymous. The survey was conducted online using a survey platform, and participants had the opportunity to answer each question only once. Completion of the survey took approximately 20 minutes.
The mean score for empathy was 75.28 (SD = 8.23). The mean amount of time spent on Facebook was 1.88 (SD = .848) hours a day. The mean amount of times Facebook was checked in a day was 2.32 (SD = 1.06) times per day.
To test the hypothesis that increased time spent on Facebook, and increased amount of times Facebook is checked in a day will lead to an increase in empathy, Pearson’s correlation analyses were used. The results showed there was no significant correlation between amount of time spent on Facebook and empathy. The correlation was a very weak negative measuring -.003, r(319)= -.003, p < .005. This shows very little correlation between a person’s empathy and the amount of time they spend on Facebook. For this study, the results supported the hypothesis that empathy will increase with increased time spent on Facebook. Results showed a strong positive correlation between the amount of times Facebook is checked during the day and the amount of empathy the user exhibits. The strong positive measured .081, r(319)= .081, p < .005. These results indicate that the hypothesis of increased times spent checking Facebook would lead to an increase in empathy was supported. However, some results showed a very weak negative, so more testing should be done over time.
The overall goal of this research was to compare the relationship between time spent on the popular social media site Facebook and empathy. There has been fear of increased Facebook usage causing less face to face interaction, and therefore negatively affecting empathy scores among individuals. Studies have been done showing otherwise, but there is not a lot of research contributing to this area. Our research was divided into two main hypotheses, one of which was supported. There was no correlation between hours spent on Facebook and the amount of empathy subjects in this particular study had. In addition, there was a positive correlation between times a day Facebook was checked and the empathy of the participants showing that empathy was not negatively affected by checking Facebook multiple times a day. Overall, the results of this study show that social media is not having a negative impact on empathy. I believe that there needs to be a more in-depth study due to the fact that some results were inconclusive. This study was important in the fact that it supported prior studies in the fact that Facebook use could lead to an increase in empathy. Like the work done by Collins, we found that increased amount of times checking Facebook during the day was correlated to stronger scores in empathy. However, results for time spent on Facebook were inconclusive, showing a very weak negative. It is believed that a lengthier study, such as the one done by Vossen and Valkenburg would need to be conducted in order to obtain better results.
Though an important contribution to research, this study did have a few limitations in research. One important limitation of this study is the fact that results came from purely correlational data collected over a short amount of time. A longer study over the course of several years would need to be conducted to prove a strong relationship between these two variables. A longer time frame is needed to study the long-term effects of Facebook use and trends in empathy. A second limitation is that the sample was very convenient. It was conducted online and spread via social media which may have limited the quality of our sample. Additionally, there was a major limitation in the way measurements were taken. Data was replicated among the participants. There was also no way for us to judge how much empathy they had before they started using Facebook, so it is hard to truly judge how much Facebook has affected their empathy personally.