Building Empathy and Compassion in the Digital Age

Photo by me
Photo by me

For this week’s learning about digital citizenship and online safety and responsibility, I have tried to gain a better understanding of how online behaviors and actions impact the access and safety of personal information. One of the topics I have decided to explore is cyberbullying, as I have realized that it is an issue that I have never really addressed, probably due to the fact that I have never experienced it first hand. As a teenager, I didn’t use any social media and didn’t have much experience with technology in general. As an adult using social networks on a daily basis for personal and professional reasons, I wonder if I have seen any behaviors online that I identified as cyberbullying. However, I recognize that it is an issue that has taken a new dimension by the new technologies and the interconnected publics. To investigate what cyberbullying really means and what forms it takes in social media sites and in the social lives of teenagers, I have decided to dig deeper (following Emily’s advice).

In addition to my reading on the issue of cyberbullying, in particluar Dana Boy’s It’s Complicated (a must read), I decided to conduct my own research and collect first-hand data. First, I started having conversations with my students on digital citizenship. Topics of discussions have revolved around digital footprint, online privacy, respect of copyright laws, online behaviors and critical approaches to media. I have been pleasantly surprised by how well informed my students are in regards to the principles of digital citizenship. This is largely thanks to tech integrators at my school who have built a digital literacy skills program that they teach in the Elementary and Middle School, and to a certain extent in the High school through themes, topics and hands-on activities.

To further investigate the topic from teens’ viewpoint, I designed a survey this week that I administered to French students in grades 9-12 in 4 French classes (thank you Valdir for your help administering the survey). The purpose was to find out information about teens’ experiences with cyberbullying, and their level of awareness and knowledge of the issue. The qualitative data I have collected is not, by any means, robust and the results are not representative to deduct any general conclusions or make generalizations about cyber bullying. The data remains valuable, nevertheless,  in understanding this topic, the nuances and realities of networked teens in general, and also in reflecting on ways to empower youth to make good choices and wise decisions, and help them build empathy and compassion, which are essential fundamental traits to possess in the digital age.

Survey Finding:

Fifty-three students (32 females and 21 males) in grades 9-11 were surveyed during class time. Students were aware that the online survey was anonymous and voluntary. The participation rate was 100%, which suggests that students were interested in sharing their experiences regarding the issue of cyberbullying. The majority of students said that they spend 4-6 hours online on a typical day. The top 4 online activities that they do are (in order): doing schoolwork, texting/ chatting/ visiting social media sites and watching online videos.

To find out more about teens’ knowledge of the issue of cyberbullying, the survey asked students to define cyberbullying, give examples and say how often they think it happens in general. A little more than half of the respondents said that they have seen behaviors of cyberbullying on the Internet, and only 11% said they they have been engaged in cyberbullying others.

Words and expression that have been used to define cyberbullying were: “intimidation, hateful behavior, abusing, attacking, hurting, being mean, cruel, ridiculing, mocking, threatening, rude comments, rumors, harassment”. Examples of cyberbullying provided by the surveyed students can be summarized in 3 points: 1. Posting embarrassing information (pictures, videos) and negative comments about others for the purpose of ridiculing them 2. Spreading rumors about others either through fake or real accounts 3. Posting private information about others without their consent. About half of the students said that cyberbullying happens often, while only one student thinks it never happens.

The definitions and examples provided by the surveyed students suggest that cyberbullying involves a perpetrator and a recipient and is an umbrella term used to refer to acts of meanness perpetuated through social media. According to stop, examples of cyberbullying include “mean text messages or emails, rumors sent by email or posted on social networking sites, and embarrassing pictures, videos, websites, or fake profiles.”

The survey results suggest that students are aware of cyberbullying as an online phenomenon among teenagers using social media. Danah Boyd argues that “networked technologies complicate how people understand bullying.”p 132. Is it a whole new phenomenon? Has it radically changed because of the larger audience witnessing it and the increased visibility of acts of meanness that can significantly intensify the emotional ordeal that the recipient undergoes? Boyd argues that teens’ behaviors have not significantly changed, and “blaming technology or assuming that conflict will disappear if technology usage is minimized is naïve.” p.152. It is vitally important to understand the dynamics of teens’ social lives and the issues that teens experience as well as the reasons that lead to acts of cruelty and meanness if we are to provide solutions and interventions that focus on enhancing teens’ social and emotional well-being, online and offline equally.

CC0 Public Domain
CC0 Public Domain

What teens can do to minimize their chances of being part of cyberbullying.

In the last part of the survey, I asked students to state what they can do that could minimize the chances that they might be engaged in a cyberbullying act, either as an initiators, possible perpetuators or the ones at the receiving end. The purpose of this question was to find out if students knew how to protect their privacy online, and how to act ethically and responsibly on Internet and social networks. I was also interested in knowing what might be possible solutions to the issue of cyberbullying, from teenagers’ perspective.

The survey results regarding this question can be summarized in the following points:

To minimize chances of being engaged in cyberbullying:

  1. Be in charge of your digital footprint. Think twice before you post any photos or information online and avoid sharing too much personal information through social media sites. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Do not post any data about others without their consent or for any spiteful purposes.
  2. Protect your privacy online: secure the privacy settings of any social media accounts you have. Know who your audience is and remember that traces of any online behavior can easily spread and persist for a long time.
  3. Be an upstander, not a bystander: never employ technology to the detriment of others. Positive students use technology to build positive, healthy relationships. Upstanders show confidence and resilience when they encounter bullying online, and they have the compassion and the courage to actively stop cyberbullying acts from going viral. Reporting cyberbullying cases and talking with trusted adults (parents, teachers, counselors) when cuberbullying occurs are important steps in combating the issue.

 The last open-ended survey question asked students to identify possible solutions to the issue of cyberbullying. Apart from suggestions that were similar to how to minimize chances to be engaged in cyberbullying acts, respondents mentioned the role of awareness and education.

Our role as educators and parents

CC CC BY 3.0 us via Wikipedia
CC CC BY 3.0 us via Wikipedia

Undoubtedly, education plays a paramount role in producing positive and balanced individuals who know how to act ethically and responsibly in the digital world. Discussing issues related to online safety and responsibility with students is essential. Equipping them with digital literacy skills through targeted lessons and open discussions (instead of lecturing them) can solve many issues that they encounter online. The question whether it is much easier to exhibit mean behaviors online because of the anonymity and the increased public visibility, and whether today’s teens have become desensitized to the feelings and emotions of others is irrelevant. What is relevant and crucial is to understand the reality of the social networked lives of teens today and help them learn how to master their emotions and value the integrity of others and the diversity of perspectives.

CC United Way via Flickr
CC United Way via Flickr

Instead of focusing our effort on consequences and punishment procedures, let’s focus on what matters. Let’s invest in the well-being of our students. Let’s leverage our resources and work with our students and other stakeholders to create an empathetic and a reflective community of learners that value and model integrity and compassion publicly and when nobody is watching.

How do you build empathy and compassion in your classroom? Please share your thoughts.



Boyd, danah (2014). It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. Yale University Press- Chapter 5: “bullying- is social media amplifying meanness and cruelty?”

Link to survey:

3 Replies to “Building Empathy and Compassion in the Digital Age”

  1. Great survey Layla! So important to teach students about digital citizenship especially as they are consistently making connections not just with peers but with people all over the world as part of their learning! Sounds like you and your tech integrators are doing a great job! Cyberbullies are as commonplace as schoolyard bullies were before the ed tech era. Two Questions is a great talking point for students that are a little older than mine: link to
    Another great website which your school might like to use is link to Its for the younger students but I found it really useful in teaching the important lessons about online safety without freaking them out. There aren’t many great resources for teaching the younger kids about this I have found! Makes them more informed and mindful about their online presence before they get to high school!

  2. I love that you did a survey to find out more about the cyberbullying at your school. The results were what I would expect, but I was impressed with their ideas on how to combat cyberbullying. The kids seem really aware of privacy and their digital footprint, a clear indication that your school is doing an excellent job!
    The issue of bullying in general needs to be addressed early in a child’s life with empathy and compassion being taught. I work with the younger students and we do follow a program in our school to help teach empathy, but we also have many on the spot lessons when things come up. Often, children say something and do not realize it is harmful or hurtful, so I try to focus on being empathetic and helping each other instead of mocking or noting how someone cannot do something, or is doing something different. These are lessons the children need throughout their lives (many adults could use some help in this area as well!)
    Education is the key to making sure students are more mindful and aware of their actions either online or offline.

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