Children Just Have No Empathy These Days

Do we have a responsibility to change societal narratives about pain?

Pain is a part of life. We all experience it and we all see it.

Empathy is the ability to experience the feelings and states of being of others and replicate them as if you were in their shoes.

I can’t watch others in pain. It gets to me.

Observing someone else’s suffering can activate emotions and bring about a deep sense of distress in some of us. It can feel all too real as if it is happening to us.

When we are watching something real-life then this can really hit home. But what about the way pain is shown in settings that aren’t real like cartoons and films? It is well known that what children watch on TV shapes and models their behaviours.

This is confirmed in a recent study by Noel et al (2020) who looked at the portrayal of pain in children’s popular media. The findings are shocking and demand we take pain education more seriously as children have become desensitised.

They found that children engrossed in popular TV programmes are exposed to up to nine incidents of pain for every hour of TV watched, and this is unrealistically and often violently portrayed. Furthermore, empathy and helping is rarely depicted, and unhelpful gender stereotypes abound.

Children’s TV characters don’t show empathy when they witness pain.

Their analysis looked at 10 family movies from 2009 onwards (Despicable Me 2, The Secret Life of Pets, Toy Story 3 & 4, Incredibles 2, Inside Out, Up, Zootopia, Frozen and Finding Dory), as well as popular kids’ TV programmes (Sofia the First, Shimmer and Shine, Paw Patrol, Octonauts, Peppa Pig, Daniel Tiger’s Neighbourhood).

Image: Peppa Pig

Over these movies and TV series the researchers identified:

  • 454 painful incidents – a mean of 8.66 incidents of pain per hour.
  • Violent pain or injury being the most common type of pain depicted (occurring in over two-thirds of instances – 79%).
  • Boy characters much more likely to experience severe pain in comparison with girl characters (according to facial expressions).
  • Examples of everyday pain (i.e. a character falling over or bumping their knee), being much less common, represented in only 20% of incidents.
  • A general lack of empathy from other characters in responding to pain: 75% of painful instances were seen by others, yet in 41% of cases those witnessing it did not respond or where they did they were generally not empathetic.

The researchers from the Univeristy of Bath and University of Calgary want producers to use their influence to re-think how pain is portrayed in order to better equip young people to cope with common, everyday pain which they are more likely to experience but is often forgotten and misunderstood.

As Hurley-Wallace et al (2019) note, acute and chronic pain are widespread issues in children, can have negative impacts on the quality of life of individuals. Pain matters, it needs to be understood, made visible and children need to tune into what it is to be in pain and different types of pain.

Paediatric pain researcher and health psychologist Dr Abbie Jordan says,

Our assessment is that these programmes could do much more to help children understand pain by modelling it in different ways and crucially by showing more empathy when characters experience pain. That’s important for how children interact with others when one of them experiences pain, such as when a friend might fall over in the playground or when they go to the doctors for routine vaccinations.

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