Our powers of empathy, the central component of emotional intelligence, to engage with others can make the difference. NYT PIC

“DIDN’T they feel anything when they tortured my son?”

These were the words of the mother of National Defence University of Malaysia (UPNM) naval cadet Zulfarhan Osman Zulkarnain, 21, who died of injuries inflicted by his university mates earlier this month. For most of us, we ask ourselves the same question, too.

Lately, cases of bullying have been filling the news, beginning with an incident in a Mara Junior Science College, in which 10 students were expelled, until the death of T. Nhaveen last week, believed to have been viciously assaulted by his former schoolmates in Penang.

There is no actual set profile for a bully. Bullying can manifest in different ways and levels. There may be common characteristics, for instance, boys are usually more physical than girls.

It is also said that young people who have been the victim of bullying are more likely to become bullies themselves.

I remember one conversation I had with Joe, a friend who used to share stories of how he beat up other students when he was in secondary school. He was lucky not to land in hot water, but I was curious and asked him what was going on in his mind whenever that happened.

“Were you angry? Didn’t you feel bad? Were you encouraged by the friends you hanged out with?” Those were some of my questions.

As we all remember, splitting up children from friends because they are bad influence is a general gist of parental wisdom, and almost a peril of adolescence for many.

The friends we hang out with may determine our behaviour as teenagers. Keep the company of bad boys, and you will take a cue from them. Hang out with sensible friends, and your behaviour will be good.

Joe believed that since boys have loads of testosterone, that could be the cause of his aggressive adolescent behaviour.

He added that he could have picked up cues from his environment, thinking that he was just behaving “normally”.

He also agreed that he could have thrown his empathy out the window because he was so caught up and excited when beating up his friends.

Imagine if there is a cure for this meanness. Well, maybe there is, if bullying can be attributed to decline in a person’s empathy.

Empathy, in simple terms, is the ability to place oneself in another’s shoes, to feel another person’s suffering vicariously.

Many people see youths today (sometimes called “Generation Me) as one of the most self-centred, competitive, overconfident and individualistic lot compared with other generations.

There are a number of theories in relation to the lack of kindness and helpfulness among this generation, and towards them becoming less empathetic than ever — from media exposure to narcissistic personality and impulsive problems.

Somewhere, somehow, social and emotional skills are lacking.

Recent research from the University of Michigan in the United States found that college students today are less empathetic than their counterparts of the past 30 years.

These students are less likely to agree with statements like “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective” and “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.”

The study found the biggest drop in empathy after 2000 — with about 40 per cent lower than 20 or 30 years ago.

Although the study was conducted among Americans, it gave some ideas on the lack of empathy among young people. At the same time, research also shows that many bullies have low levels of empathy — those are key indicators.

When one does not develop empathy, one acts solely in pursuit of his or her own desires.

While this may be pleasurable, the lack of consciousness of others’ feelings is not good for society, and may make people more inclined to bully.

Belinda Parmar, creator of the world’s first global Empathy Index and also the author of The Empathy Era, said empathy is one important soft skill that most education systems miss.

While some subjects, like foreign languages, literature and the arts may foster empathy, these are not always seen as crucial.

She said we need to focus on empathy into our entire education system because by the time young people reach tertiary education, it might be too late to instil that value.

For children, the practice of looking people in the eye and creating conversation helps build empathy. However, the increased use of technology is not helpful.

She also argued that in the Fourth Industry Revolution, as artificial intelligence gets faster, smarter and reliable, we need to celebrate the values that make us different from the smartest machines.

And this, she stressed, is the importance of empathy, especially in the future. Empathy is something that computers cannot emulate, which makes us human.

Our powers of empathy — the central component of emotional intelligence — to engage with others can make the difference.

The worrying decline of empathy among young people is then a problem that needs to be addressed.

Skills associated with empathy must not only be made core values. They need to be embedded at all levels of society to reduce bullying in schools, the Internet, in homes and in our communities.

Hazlina Aziz left her teaching career more than 20 years ago to take on different challenges beyond the conventional classroom. As NST’s education editor, the world is now her classroom. She can be reached via hazlina@nst.com.my

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