Empathy, social values and civic behaviour among early adolescents in Ireland: Composite report
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Silke, C., Boylan, C., Brady, B., & Dolan, P. (2019). ‘Empathy, Social Values and Civic Behaviour among Early Adolescents in Ireland: Composite Report.’ Galway: UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre.
This new century is indeed one of pressing global issues, from climate change to large-scale migration and displacement – issues that challenge us to exercise our capacity for empathy, to feel for the plight of those we have never met as we do for those with whom we share a city or a country. (Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland, 2016)1 Although there are many definitions available in the literature, empathy is typically understood as a person’s ability to feel and understand the emotions and feelings of others. Empathy is widely seen as the foundation for broader societal attitudes and behaviours, such as social responsibility and prosocial or civic behaviour. Research has shown that empathy and related ‘other-oriented’ values and behaviours are associated with a wide range of positive outcomes in the areas of personal development, interpersonal relationships, and societal well-being. As highlighted in the quote by Michael D. Higgins above, we are living in an era of great social change, where people’s capacity for empathy remains critical but can be challenged by a range of forces or influences. The emergence of populist politics which have cultivated divisions between groups in society could be seen as a challenge to empathic and civic values. Concerns have been expressed that the increasing individualisation of society over recent decades is leading to declining levels of empathy, social concern, and civic engagement among younger generations. The accelerated advancement of information and communication technology has raised questions as to whether increased online activity among young people will reduce their capacity to empathise with others and change perceptions of what constitutes acceptable behaviour. Others have disputed claims that the current generation is less empathetic than their predecessors, arguing that young people’s civic behaviour is different from previous generations and that technology and social media have facilitated greater social understanding between people. Given the importance of empathy and related social values to social cohesion and democracy, it can be argued that it is of societal importance that values of empathy and care towards others be given due attention in research and policy. In particular, because the empathic or civic processes that individuals experience in childhood and youth have been found to influence their social values and civic behaviour into adulthood, it is important to explore these issues as they pertain to young people. To date, however, there has been little research conducted on this topic among youth in Ireland. This study aims to generate empirical evidence regarding the values and experiences of youth in Ireland towards a range of issues which reflect a sense of social responsibility towards others, including an analysis of factors that influence the development of social values and empathy. It also aims to review the degree to which national policy and curriculum supports the promotion of such values.