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Can You Tweet Your Way to Empathy?

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Sara Konrath's single mother struggled to raise their large family until Ruth befriended them, helping out in every way she could until she became a surrogate grandmother.

"Her amazing care and empathy has stayed with me all my life," Konrath tells us.

Konrath has a life-long fascination with empathy -- what makes people like Ruth care so selflessly for others? It's a fascination to which we can relate. Today Konrath, who was raised in Canada, is a researcher at the University of Michigan where she puts empathy under the scientific microscope.

She and her colleagues have just released some startling findings about empathy in different age groups, and launched a new experiment to see if new media -- like social media -- can teach people to be more empathetic.

Last week we wrote about some big ways organizations are using social media to create positive change. Konrath's research got us thinking about the little ways each of us individually can make a difference using social media.

First, however, here's what Konrath and her fellow researchers have discovered.

In their study, Konrath's team asked subjects from different age groups -- young adults to senior citizens -- about their ability to relate to the viewpoint of others, their tendency to experience sympathy or compassion for others, and how they experience distress or discomfort in reaction to the extreme distress of others.

The researchers discovered that people in their 50s show the most empathy for others, and young adults the least. More worrying, however, is that the current generation of young adults shows a 40 per cent decline in empathy compared to young adults one or two generations ago.

The researchers wonder why this is, and if social media is a factor.

"We are more connected now, but the communication is much more superficial," says Konrath, noting that other studies have found a direct correlation between narcissism and intensive use of social media.

More importantly, the researchers want to know if these new forms of communication could also be the solution to the problem -- teaching people to be more empathetic.

We love the experiment they invented to test the hypothesis.

Each day, a study group of university students receives a short text message asking them to do something positive: "Send a nice text message to someone close right now. Try to make them feel loved." or "Think about somebody close to you. Do a small nice thing for this person today."

At the end of the experiment, the researchers will test the students again to see if their empathy scores have increased.

We talk a lot about empathy because we believe it to be one of the most basic, critical forces that bind us together as a society. The ability to care for others, sympathize with the pain in others, to understand how our actions impact the well-being of others -- without those we can't function as social beings. A lack of empathy lies behind social ills like bullying, apathy and neglect.

One of our favourite quotes comes from the Dalai Lama, who said: "The greatest threat to our world is we are raising a generation of passive bystanders."

Where there is empathy, there are no passive bystanders.

So can social media become a force for empathy in our world? There seem to be a lot of people out there who think so.

In the wake of the Newtown shooting tragedy a U.S. news personality, Ann Curry, took to Facebook and Twitter with the 26 Acts of Kindness Campaign -- encouraging people to commit 26 random acts of kindness, one for each Newtown victim. The campaign went viral with the hashtag #26Acts.

The Shorty Awards honour people who manage to produce quality content in just 140 characters on Twitter. One of the award categories is #kindness, and anyone can tweet their nominations for individuals who have tweeted exceptional kindness.

On Facebook last week a poster by an Australian organization, Teachers Training International, went viral, drawing positive reactions from around the world. The poster encourages people to THINK before they post on social media. THINK stands for: is it True; is it Helpful; is it Inspiring; is it Necessary; is it Kind.

So much of our interpersonal communication today happens in that virtual realm we call social media. A moment of kindness and empathy on Facebook can have as much positive impact as a compliment or a hug when you're face-to-face.

So whether you Tweet, text, Facebook or blog, take a moment every day to commit a random act of social media kindness. We don't need a scientific experiment to tell us it'll make the world a little better for you, and all those around you.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit www.weday.com or follow Craig on Twitter at @craigkielburger