The internet: it’s complicated. In this thorough literature review, researchers examine the diverse reports of the effect of online technologies on sociability. While some studies indicate the potential of social media, messaging apps, and games to increase empathy and perspective-taking, others point to the adverse effects of technology on sociability evident in phenomena such as cyberbullying, aggression, and internet addiction. The researchers posit that the reason for conflicting reports about these technologies’ impact on empathy may lie in a lack of attention to how these technologies are being used. The key to understanding whether a certain technology or behavior will positively or negatively impact sociability, they propose, depends on whether that tool or activity encourages or prohibits interpersonal depth.

The diverse conclusions of the studies referenced in this review lead to more questions than answers. For example, while some research indicates the positive impact of social media on philanthropic activity, other research questions whether digital sympathy translates into offline generosity. One study found that the majority of people who "like" causes on Facebook fail to make a donation. However, other research found that signing an online petition made people more likely to donate to a related charity. Likewise, a Dutch study suggested that moderate use of social media increased empathy, while a Korean study showed smartphone addiction reducing empathetic ability. These conflicting reports indicate that more research needs to be done if we want to deepen our understanding of the relationship between technology and empathy.

Based on their review, the researchers point to three ways online technology affects sociability. They propose that it benefits sociability when it complements existing deep offline relationships, but impairs sociability when it replaces offline relationships with superficial digital engagement. They also highlight research on the positive effects of online technology for promoting sociability among autistic, elderly, and deaf people as well as cancer patients to suggest the benefit of online interactions for populations for whom deep offline engagement is difficult to attain.

The researchers call for more scholarly attention to the nuances of online technology and its effect on sociability. Their review raises questions that can inspire and guide scholars and educators to seek a deeper understanding of the relationship between the online and offline world.

Waytz, A. & Gray, K. (2018) Does online technology make us more or less sociable? A preliminary review and call for research. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(4), 473-491.

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