More empathy among adolescents helps stop cyberbullying, study finds

BOCA RATON, Fla. — Adolescent bullying has been a long-running problem in society, but the advent of the internet has made it easier than ever for kids to treat each other poorly. Now, researchers from Florida Atlantic University have found that cultivating more empathy among kids is an effective way of preventing cyberbullying.

A few online jokes here or there may seem harmless, but cyberbullying has a link to a long list of negative emotional, psychological, physiological, and behavioral outcomes. Kids can be innocent, but with innocence also comes a certain degree of ignorance. Most adolescent bullies have no idea just how much emotional turmoil they may or may not be causing their target.

While plenty of prior research projects have examined cyberbullying, few studies have examined the role of empathy specifically. The research team behind this latest work chose to focus on bias-based cyberbullying, which they define as “harm and abuse toward others because of one’s identity (race/ethnicity, gender or religion.”

There are 2 types of empathy kids can show

In collaboration with the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, the team at FAU analyzed the relationship between empathy and cyberbullying among a group of early U.S. adolescents. They focused on two particular types of empathy: affective and cognitive. Affective empathy is something that happens automatically — an unconscious reaction in which someone feels and shares another person’s feelings. Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, is all about intentionally placing oneself in the position of another, to better identify with their mental state and understand their emotions.

The project encompassed a national sample of 1,644 12 to 15-year-olds and examined general cyberbullying, race-based cyberbullying, and religion-based cyberbullying. Ultimately, researchers report that those higher in empathy were significantly less likely to cyberbully others in general, and similarly less likely to cyberbully others based on their race or religion. The more empathy a child displayed, the lower their chances of cyberbullying others. Regarding bias-based cyberbullying, higher total empathy levels led to a lower chance of cyberbullying others because of either their race or religion.

Next, study authors considered the two sub-facets of empathy separately. This approach revealed that only cognitive empathy is significantly and inversely related to cyberbullying. To even the research team’s surprise, affective empathy was not. Researchers explain that this observation was surprising because prior research had consistently pointed to a negative connection between affective empathy and numerous bullying behaviors.

“Based on our findings, we believe that schools need more focused efforts to improve empathy as a means to reduce these forms of harm and better protect those in vulnerable and marginalized communities,” says lead study author Sameer Hinduja, Ph.D., a professor at the FAU School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, in a university release. “However, anti-bullying programs need specific direction as to what type(s) of empathy should be prioritized.”

Cognitive empathy battles bullying behavior

Moreover, only cognitive empathy displayed a link to a sensitivity to injustice, which researchers say inhibits harm toward others and promotes positive, intervening action if someone sees victimization online or in real life. Additionally, researchers note cognitive empathy is interconnected with both “social empathy” and being capable of understanding another person’s emotions.

“For decades, research has shown that those who are different than the prevailing majority are not disproportionately targeted, but suffer more severe consequences when victimized. As such, we must continue to identify what can stem the tide of this trend,” Prof. Hinduja concludes. “Our study suggests that cultivating and enhancing cognitive empathy in young persons should not only reduce participation in race- and religion-based cyberbullying, but other forms of bias-based cyberbullying such as those tied to one’s sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.”

The findings appear in The Journal of Early Adolescence.

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