Why we lack digital empathy and how we can cultivate it

A cultural shift in talking about cyber abuse is taking place, with more people willing to speak openly about their experiences.

Cyber abuse, including cyberbullying and internet trolling is a growing problem. In Australia, one in five young people have experienced online harassment, social media exclusion, or online abuse.

One of Australia’s foremost experts in this area, Dr Evita March, has spent years researching the psychology of why people perpetrate cyber abuse. “There are many reasons why people behave this way,” she says. “Stress, frustration, and mood can really impact our online behaviour. Mental health and wellbeing play an important role in understanding cyber abuse.”

Profile: Dr Evita March

Dr March cites the COVID-19 pandemic as a real-life case study of the link between stress and cyber abuse. “When people experience stress they will be more likely to engage in cyber abuse,” she says, “and this likely explains why, in one of the initial lockdowns in Australia, we saw a 300 per cent increase of reports of cyber abuse to the Office of eSafety Commissioner.”

Dr March states that explanations of anonymity facilitating cyber abuse may not tell the whole story. “Previous research has considered the anonymity afforded by the online space to be a key explanation for cyber abuse. However, what doesn’t add up is why people are doing this under their own profile, their own name.” Dr March suggests the key here is visual anonymity, “Not being face-to-face, not reading facial and body cues, likely impairs our experience of empathising with one another.”

Rather than just legislating against cyber abuse, Dr March suggests educators, parents, and the community need to advocate, and teach, digital empathy. “Digital empathy, actively learning how to empathise with others online, could be embedded into the national curriculum. We can go beyond just learning IT skills – we can also actively teach, and learn, how to improve online empathy,” says Dr March.

Dr March says training to improve empathy is possible. “Although we often think we are just born with empathy, we do learn and improve empathy as we grow. For example, we teach children empathy all the time – encouraging a child to consider why someone might be feeling upset, why what they said could hurt another person’s feelings – these are all strategies to enhance empathy.”

In addition to mental health, anonymity, and empathy, personality may also explain why people cyber abuse, says Dr March. In her research, she has found that people who are callous, impulsive, enjoy harming others, and are reinforced by behaving antisocially, are more likely to engage in cyber abuse. Also, interestingly, Dr March states that one of the best predictors of perpetrating cyber abuse is having experienced cyber abuse, suggesting a reciprocal relationship between the two. “Directly or vicariously experiencing cyber abuse could even normalise the behaviour,” she says.

According to Dr March, a cultural shift in talking about cyber abuse is taking place, with more people willing to speak openly about their experiences. And, as more people do so, those conversations lead to a greater awareness of the impact of cyber abuse, which may help some perpetrators understand the impact of their abuse.

Dr March says that these conversations about the experience of cyber abuse are fundamental to understanding the impact of the behaviour. “Too long we have encouraged people to just ignore the behaviour, or invalidated their experience by stating that ‘it’s just online’,” she says. “The impact of experiencing cyber abuse is very real, and it can be very damaging.”

Dr March notes that although new, updated legislation is a step in the right direction, management and interventions must be evidence based. More funding is needed to research how best to increase digital empathy and change the alarming prevalence of cyber abuse.

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