Race-related internet use can build empathy, study finds

November 1, 2017

New study finds internet use enhances social skills in sixth through 12th grade adolescents

There has been a longstanding debate about whether internet use hinders or enhances social skills. Previous research suggests that social media use is related to increased empathy but general time spent online is related to decreased levels, particularly for girls.

No study to date has explored how specific types of interactions online, such as exploring one’s racial identity or interacting with same-race peers might be related to empathy.

In a study published this fall in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, however, researchers at the Center for Empowered Learning and Development with Technology are the first to find that same-race friendship and communication as well as racial identity exploration enhance empathic social skills over time.

The longitudinal study was part of CELDTech’s Teen Life Online and in Schools Project and was coauthored by Fantasy Lozada, an assistant professor at Viginia Commonwealth University, and CELDTech director Brendesha Tynes, an associate professor of education and psychology at USC Rossier. The sample included 337 African-American adolescents in sixth through 12th grade. Participants completed online surveys at two time points one year apart.

“Our findings indicate that interacting with same-race peers in online spaces is most impactful for African-American boys and late adolescent African-Americans in fostering empathy,” Lozada said. “We know that issues related to race may be more salient for both of these groups given that both tend to report more frequent experiences with racial discrimination relative to African-American girls and early adolescents.”

The benefits found for these types of interactions do not hold when students experience high amounts of online racial discrimination.

“We find that African-American adolescents create racial safe havens for themselves online where they may see empathic behaviors modeled,” Tynes said. “You might also see people coming to the aide of online friends who may be targeted because of their race.”

As the country increasingly focuses on non-cognitive aspects of learning in schools and beyond, naturally occurring experiences may offer cues on how to further enhance students’ social-emotional development.

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