South by Southwest talk by Lilly Family School of Philanthropy faculty member Sara Konrath shows how texting can teach teens to care about others
Technology designed to connect us can just as often isolate us, even from people in the same room. But what if it could make us more caring?
At South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Tex., today, Dr. Sara Konrath will talk about her research on using text messaging to build empathy in teens. Konrath is assistant professor of philanthropic studies at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
Konrath has found it is possible to increase people’s empathy—tendencies to feel for others and imagine their perspectives—via text messaging, with the effects lasting up to six months later.
“Our research has found that empathy has been steadily declining among young Americans since the late 1970s,” Konrath says. “Ninety percent of Americans have a mobile phone. Why not use these devices to teach people to become more empathetic?”
The approach has potential for improving a wide variety of societal and physical and emotional health issues, from reducing cyber-bullying among teens to training medical students to more closely identify with and care for their patients.
Cell phones and text prompts are used to help smokers quit smoking or to help people with diabetes manage their blood sugar. Such interventions are inexpensive to implement, can be embedded within participants’ everyday lives, and can be widely and broadly disseminated, but so far have mostly been applied to change physical health behaviors. Konrath’s research finds that a similar approach can help people build their social and relational skills. The project is funded by the John Templeton Foundation.
Konrath has worked closely with HopeLab, a social innovation and technology enterprise, to develop and pilot test a two-week text messaging program that gives people practice understanding others’ feelings, imagining their perspectives and doing small acts of kindness throughout the day. “It’s a personal empathy coach in their pocket,” she says.
Increasing empathy has both societal and personal benefits, Konrath says. Strengthening social bonds can help people to be more connected and caring members of society, but also can help them be happier and healthier as well.
“Research finds that people with healthy social connections have stronger immune systems, healthier hearts and live longer than those who are less socially connected,” Konrath says. “They also have better quality of life: they are happier, have more meaning in life and we have found that they fewer stress hormones during stressful events.”
Konrath is the director of the Interdisciplinary Program on Empathy and Altruism Research (iPEAR), a research lab at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy with a primary focus on empathy, altruism, and other-focused behavior. Her research examines causes, consequences, and changes in empathy and related traits from a variety of perspectives, including their underlying physiology. Her collaborators on the initial paper on this project are University of Pennsylvania scholar Emily Falk and University of Michigan scholars Rich Tolman, Rebecca Cunningham, Maureen Walton, James Swain, Mary Liu and Andrea Fuhrel-Forbis.
About the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy
The Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy is dedicated to improving philanthropy to improve the world by training and empowering students and professionals to be innovators and leaders who create positive and lasting change. The school offers a comprehensive approach to philanthropy through its academic, research and international programs and through The Fund Raising School, Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, and the Women’s Philanthropy Institute. Follow us on Twitter @IUPhilanthropy or “Like” us on Facebook.
Hopelab works to harness the power and appeal of technology to improve human health and well-being. It focuses on the research and development of new social technologies to promote human resilience and improve both psychological and biological health and well-being. HopeLab is part of The Omidyar Group.