In a world where physical distancing and social isolation have become the new norm, there’s a greater need to empathise with one another, to be understanding and to stay connected.
We need empathy, more than ever before. But where does it start?
I believe that empathy starts with children.
Empathy is beneficial to a child’s development, as it helps build a sense of security and strong relationships, it improves their learning outcomes, and encourages tolerance and acceptance of others.
While children learn empathy in natural social environments by engaging face-to-face with others, technology can enhance this experience, especially when these face-to-face interactions become compromised.
Technology to enhance empathic development
The COVID-19 climate has fast-tracked the need to use technology in most aspects of our lives, and children are relying on gaming for entertainment and social connection more than ever. There’s still great debate whether and to what extent technology can hinder or help with the development of young children.
In the context of empathy, I’ve often been asked by my peers, “Wouldn’t it be better to let children learn from their natural social environment, by engaging with other children face-to-face?”, or “Why is it important to support social emotional learning with technology?”.
And while I agree that a natural social environment is irreplaceable for a child, specially developed games aren’t intended to replace this experience; rather, they can be used to enhance it.
The Empathy World is a computer game developed specifically to test and improve children’s sensitivities to social cues and emotional reactions. By facilitating the learning and development based on theoretical and empirical evidence, the game presents real-world examples in which children are asked to provide the appropriate reaction they see fit for the scenario.
The debate about whether or not to incorporate technology in education is largely outdated, with the prevalence of technology in children’s learning and lives. The key focus today is more on how to integrate technology to promote positive learning and development.
For example, if a child is presented with another child crying (in a digital story), their empathic reaction could involve noticing the crying child rather than other colourful toys on the same screen, experiencing the sadness of the other child, and becoming empathetically concerned. The child may also want to find out what’s happening, and may consider imaginative responses to the situation.
By encouraging this caring and compassionate attitude, children become engaged in learning experiences that build empathy.
Our research observed children aged between three and six, a critical period of empathic development. Children in this age bracket are eagerly and rapidly learning to empathise and connect with one another.
The game leverages this natural developmental window by engaging children in digitally represented social interactions where they perceive the empathy-worthy cues, understanding the emotions of the characters, and taking into account others’ perspectives in order to comprehend how certain emotions stem from a given social context.
Incorporating a multidisciplinary design approach
The debate about whether or not to incorporate technology in education is largely outdated, with the prevalence of technology in children’s learning and lives. The key focus today is more on how to integrate technology to promote positive learning and development, and to achieve this, the design of these digital instruments is pivotal.
While many parents are concerned about excessive play of purely entertaining video games that might have created negative consequences for children, the medium itself should not take all the blame.
The key issue here is whether or not the game incorporates educationally sound design techniques that enable these games to contribute positively to children’s learning and development.
A key goal of this program is to create gameplay experiences that are high in educational and developmental value. To achieve this, The Empathy World combines neuropsychological and developmental design aspects with a child’s everyday social life.
Based on a wealth of theoretical and empirical evidence, spanning neuroscience, empathy theories and studies, developmental science and related educational literature, this study formulated a set of design principles.
These are then interwoven with the observations and conversations between the researcher, the children and the educators, with a single goal – to create stories and scenes that are developmentally beneficial and relevant to children’s lives.
My research showed that digital empathy programs can better support empathy development in young children than conventional methods.
The digital program included research and evidence-based content specifically designed to promote empathy holistically, rather than teaching emotion labelling with decontextualised picture cards, for example.
The digital form can be easily implemented in learning environments such as preschool and daycare centres.
The significance of empathy in children
We know that empathy is a vital building block for children to connect with one another. Those who are better at empathising with others are also better at helping themselves, as they’re more likely to have friendships that provide comfort and support in times of need.
This ability to establish and maintain a healthy social network will prove invaluable in their teenage years when they’re at their greatest risk of developing mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
Empathy is also considered by many as the key ingredient of kindness, because it often leads to prosocial behaviour such as sympathy and compassion.
Children need to see the emotions of others, to feel and understand the nuances of emotions and the social contexts that gave rise to them. With the aid of technology, we can provide children with an opportunity to make decisions and encourage their autonomy when socialising with others.
In a world where isolation and tribalism are rampant, we need to build on young children’s empathy more than ever. The combination of specifically designed technology and lived social experiences exposes children to a healthy foundation for empathetic learning and lifelong development.
Through this method, children will be better equipped to see the empathic human nature in each other beyond the divide of borders and social groups.
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