Online Empathy: Walk a mile in someone's shoes a lesson plan from LIVING ONLINE Lab

Level: Grades 6-12

Duration: 50-60 mins


ISTE, Common Core (USA), Canada, UK


Research by cyberpsychologists shows that aggressive online behavior is to a large degree due to the lack of feedback mechanics we get from other people's facial expressions and body language. This makes empathy a crucial skill to develop in an age where so much of our human interaction takes place online.

Students will learn what empathy is, why it is especially important in an online environment, and how to distinguish between empathy, solidarity, compassion, sympathy, and pity. Using a range of media, they will practice how to respond appropriately in different situations.


This lesson introduces empathy as a complex human phenomenon that is an essential component of human understanding and communication that is transformed when this communication is taken online. Students will do various exercises to reflect on the way that the complexity of empathy manifests itself online communication. By the end of the lesson, students will be able to reflect on their empathic experiences as they use digital tools to communicate their empathy.

Learning Objectives:

Students will:

  • Recognize empathy as a unique human phenomenon of face-to-face and online communication
  • Understand the difference between empathy, solidarity, compassion, sympathy, and pity.
  • Analyze online messages using an empathic feedback model

Preparations and Materials

• Read Cuff, B. M. P., Brown, S. J., Taylor, L., & Howat, D. J. (2016). Empathy - A review of the concept (in "Resources" Google folder for subscribers)

Students will first watch one these two videos as an introduction to understanding empathy:

“Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care” - an ad for the Cleveland Clinic


"Under The Surface" by Austin Wideman

Then they will watch "What is the best way to ease someone's pain and suffering? Dr Brené Brown reminds us that we can only create a genuine empathic connection if we are brave enough to really get in touch with our own fragilities.

Our brains are wired to run from pain—including emotional pain—whether it is ours or someone else's. Brown points out in this video that empathy rarely starts with the words, "At least..." and that often, the best response is, "I don't know what to say, but I am really glad you told me." Fixing your loved one's problem is not often what is needed, nor is it necessarily your job or even within your ability to do so. Sharing a listening, caring ear is something most people can do. When we feel heard, cared about, and understood, we also feel loved, accepted, and as if we belong.

In I Thought it Was Just Me (But It Isn't) (2008), Brown references nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman's four attributes of empathy:

  1. To be able to see the world as others see it—This requires putting your own "stuff" aside to see the situation through your loved one's eyes.
  2. To be nonjudgmental—Judgement of another person's situation discounts the experience and is an attempt to protect ourselves from the pain of the situation.
  3. To understand another person’s feelings—We have to be in touch with our own feelings in order to understand someone else's. Again, this requires putting your own "stuff" aside to focus on your loved one.
  4. To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings—Rather than saying, "At least you..." or "It could be worse..." try, "I've been there, and that really hurts," or (to quote an example from Brown) "It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.”

Brown explains that empathy is a skill that strengthens with practice and encourages people to both give and receive it often. By receiving empathy, not only do we understand how good it feels to be heard and accepted, we also come to better understand the strength and courage it takes to be vulnerable and share that need for empathy in the first place.


5 min – Using a word association game, students share on a whiteboard their thoughts when they hear the word "empathy."

10 mins: The instructor can explore with the class the differences between empathy and [online] solidarity: “Je sui Charlie," sympathy: “I am sorry for your loss," and pity

They then try to "rank" these emotions - as Robert Shelton has above.

10 min – The class is divided into groups (depending on class size) and each offered the following scenario:

“You are hanging out with your friend, and their parent calls. Your friend answers the phone and you hear angry shouting on the other end of the line. Your friend hangs up, looking very distressed ...”

Each group continues the scenario......

10 min - Empathy constructs – the students/groups shares their scenario, and the instructor facilitates a discussion on what each scenario represents.

10 min - Transition to online: Students discuss an online interaction: “You are communicating with your friend on Snapchat when they tell you they just got an abusive text message from an unknown troll.."

In each group, students need to describe how they would act .

5 min - Students can take this empathy test, and discuss their findings with the class:

Explain this assignment to students:

Extension Activity or Assignment:

Option A: Empathy: Walking a Mile in Someone Else’s Shoes

Empathy is, at its simplest, awareness of the feelings and emotions of other people. It is a key element of Emotional Intelligence, the link between self and others, because it is how we as individuals understand, or try to understand, what others are experiencing as if we were feeling it ourselves.

To students:

Today, you are going to use your imagination to empathize with one of the following people (instructor can change the topics to reflect current world affairs):

A new student being bullied in school

A refugee from the civil war in Syria

A survivor of a natural disaster

A resident of a low-income neighborhood in a city of your choice

A child soldier in Africa

An under-aged coal miner in England in the Industrial Revolution

An African slave on a cotton plantation in the American south in the 18th century

Research (using material provided by teacher) and create a presentation describing your situation (remember to use first person!).

Students can use Microsoft Sway, Prezi, or Adobe Spark (they need to register online for these free services)

Option B: Create a vlog, blog, journal, or podcast in the voice of a person/group you have identified in the media.

Option C: Create a website on behalf of a voiceless/underrepresented person/group you identified earlier, using what you have learnt in this lesson.

Created By
Living Online Lab

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