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Social media might make users shallow, study finds

March 21, 2016

The concept was made popular by a Pulitzer Prize nominated book “The Shallows,” written by technology and culture critic Nicholas Carr. In it, Carr describes an increasing fall in daily reflective thought, thinking over and making judgments about what has happened, as a result of an always connected online culture where ideas are exchanged in brief Tweets or texts.

“In other words, frequent usage of this type of media will be associated with a decline in the use of reflective thought, a decrease in importance placed on life goals related to morality and aesthetics, and an increase in importance placed on life goals related to hedonism and image,” the study says.

Deriving its results from a survey of 149 students at a Canadian university, the study acknowledges there are many limitations to its method and can only prove correlation, not causation.

“Usually journalists and authors sometimes report these results as ‘social media is causing people to be more shallow and to be less moral,’ whereas we don’t question the other direction of that relationship,” Saleem Alhabash, assistant professor of public relations and social media, said. “Is it possible that people who are more shallow and less moral are the ones who use social media more often? So there’s that issue. There’s no absolute certainty as to whether social media causes changes in these personality traits.”

Alhabash said his main takeaway is to treat the results of the study with a grain of salt, though he acknowledged there have been other studies that show strong evidence social media is altering how people’s brains work.

“Our brains are shifting from being computers with a big storage memory to computers with high-speed, processing software,” Alhabash said.

Breaking down the analogy, the societal shift toward quick information acquired through services like email, text briefs and videos means that people’s brains have moved from reflecting on and memorizing what someone reads toward understanding and reacting to information presented before people faster than previously done.

“You’ve got all these sorts of information that you’re processing, but you’re not memorizing as much as you would, let’s say, 50 years ago when you would go to the library and read one source of information on it,” Alhabash said. “The whole issue today is we have this burst of information, this immeasurable size of information that is at our disposal and it is impossible to memorize.”

Technology isn’t entirely responsible for these shifts. As Alhabash explained, the brain is hardwired to minimize its processing power as a means to conserve energy. It’s more efficient for the brain to expend the energy to process information faster and more frequently than it is to store knowledge for later use.

The concern for those looking into the shallowness hypothesis is if this shift in how people’s brains function is diminishing the human capacity to recognize and respond to emotions.

“In terms of shallowness, the one thing I can say is that on social media the issues that could arise is that people are always yearning to present themselves in the best light possible (pursuing life goals related to self-image as the study argues),” Alhabash said. “They want to form a good impression, so that actually creates a particular issue with being able to recognize emotion and being able to actually sympathize with others.”

He said it could be changing how people communicate with one another, but the results of this are less clear.

“There could be distinctions in how we interact with one another,” Alhabash said. “It is changing how we interact with one another. It doesn’t mean these changes are negative or bad, it just means that they are changes and they’re different. It’s a different time and a different generation.”

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