Does watching TV and playing video games affect our empathy and willingness to engage in pro-social behavior? A team of international psychology researchers studied over 2,000 adolescents (mean age 21 years, 60% female and 40% male) in seven countries (Australia, China, Croatia, Germany, Japan, Romania and the United States) to determine whether there is a link between the media they consume and their levels of empathy and pro-social behavior. Using either online surveys or face-to-face interviews, participants were asked to rate their favorite TV shows, movies and video games for pro-social and violent content. The question “How often do characters help each other?” was used to assess the pro-social content of TV shows and movies, whereas the question “How often do characters try to physically injure each other?” was used to measure the violent content. To account for the interactive nature of video games, the researchers used two items to measure the pro-social content in each game: “How often do characters help each other in this game?” and “How often do you help others in this game?”. Similarly, two questions were asked to measure the violent content in each video game: “How often do characters try to physically injure each other in this game?” and “How often do you try to physically injure players in this game?” The empathy and pro-social behavior of the participants was assessed by asking them to complete personality questionnaires in which they used scaled responses to lists of questions such as “Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place” (one out of 14 questions from the empathy questionnaire) or “I try to be helpful to people even if I don’t expect to see them ever again.” (one out of the ten items on the pro-social behavior questionnaire).
The results of this study were recently published in the article “Long-Term Relations Among Prosocial-Media Use, Empathy, and Prosocial Behavior“. As expected, empathy was strongly correlated with pro-social behavior. The more likely we empathize with fellow humans, the more likely we are to help them. The key finding of this study was that pro-social media content (TV, movies or video games) was significantly associated with greater empathy scores, and thus also with greater pro-social behavior. What makes this study quite innovative is that it surveyed participants from many different countries and cultures, all of whom showed a similar trend. This means that no matter what countries the participants grew up in, there was a correlation between watching helpful characters on TV screens or in video games and being able to empathize with fellow humans in real life. Importantly, there was no significant correlation between watching violent characters on screen and their empathy or pro-social behavior. This is an important finding because we often hear clichés about violent movies and video games turning us into psychopaths, but this international study of 2,000 adolescents could not find any evidence to support this notion. Despite the importance of this negative data, the authors do not really discuss the absence of the correlation in their paper. Lastly, there was also a significant inverse correlation between total screen-time and empathy or pro-social behavior. This means that the more time participants spent watching TV and movies or playing video games, the less likely they were to feel empathy towards others.
There are important limitations to this study. First and foremost, this was a correlational study conducted at a single time point which only offered a snapshot view and did not prove any cause-and-effect relationship. Just because watching pro-social behavior on screen is correlated with more empathy does not mean that pro-social media can convert us into empathic people. It is quite possible that people who are already predisposed towards feeling empathy and behaving in a more pro-social manner are more likely to seek out TV shows or video games with pro-social content. Furthermore, “pro-social behavior” was assessed by self-report and are not necessarily reflect the actual engagement in pro-social behavior.
To try to get to the bottom of the cause-effect relationship, the researchers then conducted a second study in which they tracked over 3,000 school-children (mean age 11 years, 73% male and 27% female) in Singapore over time. They measured video game playing, empathy and pro-social behavior annually at three different time points. They found that pro-social video game content was statistically at time point 1 was significantly correlated with greater empathy and pro-social behavior at time points 2 and 3, thus suggesting that perhaps exposing children to pro-social video games could increase the empathy of the children. However, the correlation coefficients were quite small (even though they were statistically significant). In fact, the best predictor of future empathy and pro-social behavior was already exhibiting pro-social behavior and empathy at a younger age.
The take home message from these two studies is that although there are significant correlations between pro-social media use and empathy or pro-social behavior, there is little evidence to support the idea that one can engender empathy by exposing children to pro-social content.
Sara Prot, Douglas A. Gentile, Craig A. Anderson, Kanae Suzuki, Edward Swing, Kam Ming Lim, Yukiko Horiuchi, Margareta Jelic, Barbara Krahé, Wei Liuqing, Albert K. Liau, Angeline Khoo, Poesis Diana Petrescu, Akira Sakamoto, Sachi Tajima, Roxana Andreea Toma, Wayne Warburton, Xuemin Zhang, & Ben Chun Pan Lam (2013). Long-Term Relations Among Prosocial-Media Use, Empathy, and Prosocial Behavior Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797613503854