How the desire to go viral can hurt kids' understanding of empathy

Experts are urging people to display empathy and use platforms to learn more about others — rather than sow discord.


Amid an age where people can be influenced by likes on social media, an anti-bullying advocate made a recent plea to people: Don't make fun of others, especially on things they can't control.

Motivational speaker Lizzie Velasquez, who was born with a genetic disorder that makes her unable to gain weight, commented on a TikTok trend where people would share a photo of someone to their child and say that's their new teacher.

Velasquez, who has shared how she found out as a teenager when people bullied her online, said the recent TikTok trend involved Velasquez's photo and a mother showing it to her child, who was taken aback. Velasquez said the issue is making kids less likely to have empathy for others who don't look like them.

Following the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, prompting nationwide protests and calls for reforms, experts are urging people to display empathy and use platforms to learn more about others — rather than sow discord.

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Demonstrating empathy

Parents play an important role in teaching kids about traits ranging from kindness to respect, compassion and empathy, one counseling group recently noted.

And it begins early. The counseling group noted, "Children start to recognize racial differences as early as six months of age, and by four years old, they have started to develop their own racial biases."

With technology becoming so prevalent in people's lives, including those of kids, our education system is changing how we deal with media literacy. Dr. Pavica Sheldon, a communications professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, says kids as early as ages 6 to 10 could benefit from classes.

Sheldon has spoken with high school students about this, helping inform them about issues ranging from privacy to other problems, such as how even deleted messages can still be retrieved.

Empatico is a nonprofit organization that seeks to "connect children across lines of difference," as George Khalaf, its executive director, said.

The organization's research has found an "empathy sweet spot" between the ages of 6 and 11, when children have a sense of their own identities and social categories but their prejudices against other groups haven't hardened. "They're open to influence in ways that start to close as they grow older," Khalaf said.

Maintaining inclusion

But what happens as kids age?

"Often the question is, 'If they were interacting across racial lines in second and third grade, why aren't they doing it in the seventh and eighth?" said Beverly Daniel Tatum, former president of Spelman College and author of "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" "They were all mixing up and invited to other's birthday parties. At 12, 13, 14 they're not anymore."

There are many reasons for this, she said. Kids are often tracked into ability groups, and too often, kids of color are relegated to the lower academic rungs.

Meanwhile, older kids start to separate into "affinity groups," often sticking with kids who are like themselves. For Black kids, this often has to do with how differently they're treated as they grow up, and their encounters with racism.

"People start responding to them differently," Tatum said. "The Black boy who everybody thought was cute when he was seven — at 15, maybe now people think he's dangerous, and the feedback he's getting from the world is different."

For a young Black man, the experience of watching the video of Floyd's murder is profoundly different than it is for a white child, for whom it's not a preview of what could happen.

"White kids have the privilege of not thinking about racism, so they don't know what to do when their friends of color are confronted with it," Tatum said. "If a white child has learned that language, has learned the concepts and can speak about race, that white child is likely to be able to preserve that friendship."

Sticking to your own affinity group "is a coping strategy for kids of color," Tatum said. And yet, "getting kids from different racial groups to connect and understand each other is part of creating a more equitable and just society."

Implementing change

To make the most of social media, experts recommend avoiding comparing yourself to others on it.

Among the tips noted by a University of California resource on empathy are the following:

— "Post messages of support that align with your sense of purpose or that foster meaningful connections with your community.

— "Use social media to learn about people from faraway parts of the world.

—"Try to avoid a siloed, 'superior to, or worse-off than you' perspective when you’re on social media and work to develop a more humanistic, inclusive perspective that helps you understand people from different backgrounds."

    "The parents have a critical role," said Sheldon, who's written several books on issues involving social media.

    Velasquez has shared examples of good and bad ways for how parents can role model. One of them includes a woman with a boy as they talk about Velasquez, and the two show how they should be respectful to a person who's different.

    "She looks really nice," the boy says.

    "She does look nice," the woman says. "Doesn't she?"

    This content is imported from TikTok. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.

    CNN contributed to this report.