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Influences of Empathy in Children: Contextual Creation of Media and Parental Messages



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Empathy is an important aspect of moral development and its presence in children has been shown to relate to empathy levels in later life, as well as pro-social behavior (Thompson & Newton, 2010). There are many external influences that impact a child’s moral and empathic development, including media and parents. Regarding media, past research demonstrated the modelling effect of behaviors displayed in various media outlets. The vast majority of research in this area has examined the negative effects of violent media on children’s aggression and few studies have looked closely at the positive influences media can have on children’s empathy development, with conflicting results. Within an Ethnomethodological framework, Study One examined how television media displays empathy compared to callous behavior by using a constant comparative method of analysis and focusing on verbal, nonverbal, and contextual factors in popular television shows for children aged 7-11. When exploring and understanding messages surrounding empathy in selected television shows, many themes emerged. Overall, themes suggested a black and white portrayal of characters as either all good or all bad, as well as context that gives authority to callous characters while pulling for pity for victimized characters. Regarding Study Two, through modelling and reinforcement, parental influence theorized to be is an important factor in developing empathy in children; however, few studies have examined this influence in a way that gives the parents a voice. Study Two allowed parents to reflect upon the way they influence their children’s empathic development through the everyday context of parenting. By engaging parents of children ages 7-11 in a qualitative interview, Study Two explored how parents positively influence their child’s empathy development in everyday interactions. The present research began a more positive and deep exploration of important influences in empathy development in a way that illuminates the worth of context. The various emerging themes from Study One and Study Two are discussed within the context of current research regarding empathy development in children and current theories of moral development. Limitations and areas for possible future research are also considered.



Empathy, Children



Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)






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