13 Reasons Why and the Evolution of Compassion

A Personal Note on Bullying 

I am going to take a break from my primate lesson series this week and talk about something a bit more personal.  I recently finished watching the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why based on the book of the same name by Jay Asher.  If you have not heard about the series that has been blowing up and causing major binge watching the premise is about a teenage girl, Hannah, who creates tapes recording her 13 reasons why she kills herself.  Each tape is about a different person/event that led to her to get to the point where she felt she had no other option. The set of tapes are then given to the people talked about on them and her story unfolds.  

Cyberbullying, sexual assaultand spreading rumours are the main reasons that lead to Hannah not feeling like she can stop the numbness caused by these terrible events.  While the series is not perfect, they don’t delve as deep into the mental health issues that surround someone who has suffered the trauma of being raped.  They do do a heartbreaking job of showing the devastating affects of bullying and how mean teenagers can be to each other.  With the ubiquity of smart phones and everyone being accessible 24/7 bullying can infiltrate every moment of a teenagers day.

Bullying is a topic I am intimately familiar with. I was bullied on and off for 7 years by one girl in elementary school.  I was the odd girl out, a little chubby and insecure.  I cried easily and was very gullible.  This made me a perfect target for the resident “popular” girl to bully me.  She would pretend to be my friend some days and then when I brought up the fun day we had at her house over the weekend in front of the rest of the girls in class she would deny it ever happened.  That moment of embarrassment has stuck with me to this day. I grew up before the time of smart phones, Facebook and social media.  I am so grateful for that as I don’t know how I would have dealt with the bullying that children and teenagers are facing today.  I could at least go home and get away from it.  That can't happen anymore.  Rumours can spread like wildfire with a group text to the whole school or Facebook post with a false account of something that happened or a picture that does not tell the whole story.  

Something needs to be done as 13 Reasons Why made it all too real the devastating consequences bullying can have. Hannah’s suicide is shown and it is very hard to watch.  I was filled with emotion and honestly crying pretty hard knowing all to well the real life teenagers like Rehtaeh Parsons and Tyler Clementi who took their own lives due to cyberbullying.  
What can be done?  Bullying has been around for a long time and is not just an issues now but the rapid changes in technology have brought about changes in how children and teenagers communicate and interact with each other.   Studies have shown that increased screen time leads to children being less able to read the emotions of others and empathy has dropped 40% in college students since 2000.  Empathy is decreasing as we need to actually interact with and pay attention to each other in person to develop empathy. When we are communicating with each other primarily through screens this creates a barrier to empathy and compassion, which have been key behaviours to our survival as a species.  We would not be here today if our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not cooperate, help and work together to survive.

Research in the book Sexting and Cyberbullying by Shaheen Shariff shows that 40% of students who engaged in online bullying reported not feeling guilty or bad after bullying online, while only 16% of the cyberbullies reported feeling guilty.    60% of students age 13- 18 who cyberbully say they are just doing it for fun, without taking into account how it affects the victim.  This I think is the main issue that differentiates cyberbullying from traditional bullying.  Because we are communicating with each other through screens so much and it’s so easy to send a text, Facebook post or tweet to someone that we rarely think about the consequences these words have on the victim. We become morally disengaged from the horrible action and just say it’s for fun, not a big deal and wash our hands of how terrible we can make another person feel with our words.  I doubt most people would be capable of saying the terrible things they say online to the victims face.  But because we are looking at a screen and not a person, we don’t get the emotional cues and feedback to see how our words hurt them and we can wash our hands of it.  If teens are not using the brain areas where empathy develops as they are communicating more online and not in person, then it makes sense that those brain areas would lose synapses and decrease the ability of individuals to show empathy and read emotions of others.  

However, because we have our devices with us practically 24/7 those words can be sent and received anytime and all the time.  It can become overwhelming for victims of cyberbullying when they can never get away from the mean words.  When whole classes of students are sent rumours about a student, how can they feel safe and comfortable coming to school?

How can we get these two issues to be resolved?  Lack of empathy due to increased screen time and victims who are so desperate they result to suicide to get away from it.  I am far from finding a solution but my little contribution has been to develop a program that gets students to understand the evolutionary reasons why compassion and empathy are vital to our survival and how these behaviour have developed in our mammal relatives.  It is not an accident that we see cooperative behaviours in some of our closest primate relatives, like the capuchin, who also understand fairness.  

We have these innate building blocks of altruism, fairness and cooperation combined with an evolutionary history of working together in small hunter-gather groups and giving birth to helpless infants that require our compassion and empathy to survive.

My hope is that if I can touch just a few classrooms of students and get them to realize that we must be better to each other. We cannot let technology disconnect us to the degree we see now.  We must get students to see the affects of their actions and to see that it is better to act with compassion and empathy than with anger and meanness.  We all lose out as a society and a species as whole when we treat each other poorly.  We are seeing the effects of this with such high levels of hate and division in the world today.

 With the widespread viewing of 13 Reasons Why maybe we will start to see that things need to change and we need to do better to get children to see the consequences of their actions.  If you are a parent or teacher I highly recommend bringing up the issues raised in the show and work together with the children and teenagers in your life to figure out ways we can all be better to each other.  We can get so caught up in our stressful and busy lives that we can forget to reach out and say to a friend ‘hey I see you, how are you, want to grab a coffee and catch up?’  We need that in-person human connection now more so than ever.