Frequent texting and rapid-fire social media use could lead to ‘moral shallowness’: study

Associated with negative effects on user’s use of reflective thought

by Douglas Quan 

Frequent texting and rapid-fire use of social media could be leading us down a perilous digital path toward “moral shallowness,” suggests a new Canadian study.

Researchers at the University of Windsor asked undergraduate students to rank the importance of dozens of life goals. They found those who regularly texted or were constantly tethered to social media typically cared more about image (“I want to achieve the look I’ve always been after”) and hedonism (“I want to have an exciting lifestyle”) than about goals related to morality (“I want to live my life with genuine integrity”). They were also less likely to engage in self-reflection.

Burgeoning social media use, the researchers warned, could also put a dent in students’ grades and make it harder for them to build social relationships.

“Whether it becomes an issue that needs to be dealt with or not is a matter of debate. But it’s an issue that demands our concern and poses a need for additional research,” said Logan Annisette, the study’s lead author.

“I don’t find (social media) inherently evil or dangerous or problematic, but I argue that it’s not the best use of our time.”

Annisette, who recently completed his psychology degree, wrote the paper with Kathryn Lafreniere, a psychology professor. It was published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

The study was inspired by the 2010 Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr, a technology and culture critic. He theorized frequent, quick bursts of texting promoted relatively shallow thought and less daily reflective thinking.

To test the “shallowing hypothesis,” the University of Windsor researchers asked 149 students to rank the importance of nearly 60 life goals, ranging from “I want to have a really good sex life” to “I want to find a real purpose and meaning in life.”

Students were also given a “reflection questionnaire” in which they were asked to agree or disagree with various statements, such as, “I love exploring my inner self” or “Contemplating myself isn’t my idea of fun.”

Most of the study’s participants had accounts on Facebook (95 per cent), Twitter (68 per cent) and Instagram (64 per cent). About one-third said they used those social media platforms “many times each day.”

“Frequent use of ultra-brief social media is associated with negative effects on the user’s use of reflective thought and some indicators of compromised moral judgment,” the study said.

Such “moral shallowing” could be detrimental to forming friendships, the researchers said, citing studies showing someone’s morality has more influence on how others perceive that person than intelligence or competence.

The decline in reflective thinking — gaining new understanding from one’s experiences — also can affect academic performance.

Annisette, who says his use of social media has waned over the years, was careful to point out the study’s limitations, notably that the findings suggest a correlation between heavy texting and shallowness, but not necessarily causation.

However, his findings seem to align with a 2013 University of Winnipeg study that found heavy texters placed less importance on moral, esthetic and spiritual goals, and greater importance on wealth and image.