Limits of Empathy & Social Media

In this post I am going to argue that social media in its current form can not facilitate what it is supposed to support, protect and promote – the human relationships, due to the very limit of our ability to exercise empathy.

The Reasoning

Argument 1 – Co-operation is the key

Human beings are evolved to co-operate both on scale large and small. Our survival depends on our ability to co-operate and collaborate with others.

Large-scale co-operation is essential for the survival of our species. It depends on our ability to create and believe in agreed upon fictions such as religion, nation, organization etc. [1] While the small-scale co-operation is essential for us as an individual. It depends on our immediate surrounding and our ability to form meaningful relationships.

Argument 2 – Empathy is required for meaningful relationships

Empathy is a necessary precursor to intimacy, trust, and belonging. It is also the feeling that makes it difficult to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others. [4] Thus to understand others Empathy is a necessary emotion and a core component of genuine human relationships. [2]

Argument 3 – Empathy is taxing!

Empathy is cognitively intensive and can (and should) only be exercised in limited manner. Otherwise you will go crazy! [3]

Argument 4 – Social media is quantity focused

Social media attempts to connect us with a lot more people than we are used to. It tries to project our ‘small-scale co-operation’ behavior onto a much bigger canvas by connecting us with many people from different regions, income groups, age groups, political thoughts, sexual identity etc. Even though it’s good to have such diversity of human interactions, but historically we have had limited interactions due to the physical constraints (think distance, and time) of our existence. So it is safe to say that we can’t possibly handle these many relationships at once.

Argument 5 – Social media causes “Empathy Burnout”

Remember empathy is a demanding task (see argument 3). Truly connecting with so many people with such diversity, puts our ability to empathize under immense pressure. The infinite scroll of social media, with new bits of content from hundreds of different sources doesn’t help either. We end up in an “Empathy Burnout” kind of situation, where instead of understanding others we start to judge them.

Argument 6 – Immediate relationships get affected

You can truly connect with only so many people in a day, be it online or offline. Empathy burnout causes tension with your immediate relationships – friends and family. Think about those teenagers who are obsessed with the perfect body of those Influencers and will follow their advise over their parents’ or friends’. Couples spending time by scrolling Instagram on date nights is yet another anecdotal evidence I can give.

Argument 7 – Social media is not “social” by design

When human beings lack empathy, the system (i.e. Social Media) they are part of becomes divisive and the genuineness of the human relationship is lost. Thus social media, even in best-case scenario can not be a platform for effectively nurturing relationships. Hence the very name “social media” is a misnomer as there is very little “social” activity that it is currently designed to support and promote.

The Outcome

Current social media design in not aligned to the limits of human brain to exercise empathy. Lack of empathy leads to degradation of human relationships. The incessant focus on quantity of relationships and the sheer diversity of content jeopardizes the existing relationships too, hence if anything social media makes us less social than what we were.

What next?

Just like how our physical surrounding puts a real constraint on our ability to connect with people, we need to re-design social media which instead on focusing on number of friends, followers or number of likes; focuses on promoting the quality of existing relationships. This is going to be a real challenge for this and the upcoming generation.

Disclosure – I don’t have a Facebook account, but I do use Instagram and Twitter regularly. If that makes me a part of the problem, then I am guilty as charged.


  1. Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari
  2. What Is Empathy? By Kendra Cherry on Verywell Mind
  3. The Limits of Empathy By Adam Waytz on Harvard Business Review
  4. How to Develop Empathy in Your Relationships

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