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. 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. However, there is a dearth of European research exploring the social values of early adolescents.
This paper synthesises the findings of an in-depth study completed in 2019 which aimed to generate empirical evidence regarding the social values and experiences of early adolescents in Ireland. The core research questions guiding this project were:
1. At an international level, what factors have been found to influence the development of empathy and prosocial behaviour among adolescents?
2. What are the values and behaviours of 12–16-year-olds in Ireland in relation to empathy, social values, and civic behaviour?
3. What factors in young people’s social context are important in shaping empathy, social values, and civic behaviour?
The methods used in the study included a systematic literature review, quantitative cross-sectional research with a national sample of over 700 early adolescents in 12 schools in Ireland and qualitative focus group research with 29 students in three schools in Ireland.