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Empathy is an essential quality to teach, encourage and develop in young people if we want to deal with bullying and cyber-bullying. 

Studies have found, adolescents with low levels of self-esteem and empathy are most likely to engage in cyberbullying.[1]  While many bullying and cyberbullying programs deal with the situation after the bullying has occurred, teaching, and developing empathy is important because it acts as a prohibitive factor.  Empathy can potentially stopping bullying behaviour from occurring.

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand the emotions or what another person is feeling as well as to have some experience of what they are feeling.  For example, empathy is not just understanding that another young person may be feeling lonely, it is also being able to draw on our own experiences of loneliness and to remember what it felt like for us when we were lonely.  In understanding and drawing on our own experiences we gain some understanding of what the other person may be going through.

One of the differences between person-to-person bullying and cyberbullying is its anonymous nature.  This anonymity has an impact not only on the person who is doing the cyberbullying but also the person who is the victim of the cyberbullying behaviour.

what is empathy

For the young person who is experiencing cyberbullying the anonymity and not knowing who to trust, can lead to greater mental health consequences due to the increased anxiety and the lack of safety.  For the person who is perpetrating the cyberbullying, the anonymity means they cannot see the impact of their actions on the other person.  Because they are unaware of the impact of their behaviour, they become caught up in what they are doing.  The subtle interactions and behaviours that are observed and picked up in face-to-face bullying are not present on-line, hence there is nothing to modify the on-line harassment and cyberbullying the person is doing.

Hence, the reason teaching and developing empathy in young people is so essential; it means the perpetrator can have some understanding and some appreciation of the impact of their actions even if they cannot see the impact for the other person.

How can we teach empathy?

  1. We teach empathy by modelling it.  As our young people watch us, and how we demonstrate empathy to others, so they begin to understand its importance.
  • Notice when your young people are demonstrating empathy and compliment them.
  • When your children and teenagers are talking about their interactions with other young people ask them how they think the other person was feeling.  Ask them, about their friend’s facial expressions or body language.  In encouraging young people to notice other people’s facial expressions and body language we are assisting them develop empathy.

In encouraging and teaching empathy we can reduce the incidence of bullying and particularly cyberbullying as young people learn to put themselves in the position of the other person and understand the impact of their actions on other young people.

[1] G.Brewer; J. Kerslake. Cyberbullying, self-esteem, empathy and loneliness. Computes in Human Behaviour 48 (2015) 255 – 260