Sociologist says pandemic may have made Canadian youth less empathetic, meaner


Published April 19, 2023 at 4:11 pm

Increased time online during the pandemic may have made young Canadians meaner, a researcher said Wednesday, warning that declining empathy which emerged during isolation was now fostering increased cruelty during in-person interactions, including at school.

Kaitlynn Mendes, an associate professor at the University of Western Ontario, said during an Ontario Medical Association press conference that many parents may not be aware of their children’s increased exposure to online harassment during the pandemic, which is now having damaging consequences.

“Teachers really noted that, as young people were coming back into school, the way that young people were communicating with each other during lockdown had changed, and they found that their empathy had really decreased,” Mendes, who is a sociologist, told reporters.

“This was likely due to things like the lack of eye contact, facial expression, human touch, and even voice intonations. These are really important cues that are missing from online interaction and this makes empathizing hard, but it means that harassment and abuse actually become much easier,” she added.

Mendes has not yet completed a comprehensive study about isolation’s mental health impacts on Canadian youth, but based her analysis on anecdotal evidence and a study she conducted in the U.K.

In that study, 96 per cent of British youth between the ages of 13 to 18, teachers and parents said they used more social media during the pandemic. She told reporters she expects similar findings in the Canadian study she is conducting.

The British youths surveyed reported that more time online led to an increase “in their experiences of sexual harassment, misogyny, racism, homophobia, and even various forms of fraud … and other practices like body shaming.”

“We were also looking at harms based on sexuality. So we had lots of young people report how they were outed during COVID,” she said.

In the U.K., young people also cited “increased anxiety, depression and even various forms of self harm,” she added.

The challenges of confinement also made parents less strict about managing children’s screen time, she said, calling for “more preparation, education, support and scaffolding that goes into young people’s use of digital technologies.”

“It’s very clear that when things go wrong, young people do not know where to turn to for help and that was one of the most striking things that came out of our research,” Mendes further said.

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press

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