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Does Social Media Encourage Shallow Thinking?

New research finds frequent texters are less likely to engage in reflective thought.
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(Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

(Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

In his 2010 best-seller The Shallows, Nicholas Carr warned us that habitual Internet usage may have serious side effects. Specifically, he argues frequent use of social media such as texts and tweets encourages shallow thinking, and this decreases our ability to engage in contemplation or introspection, online or off.

While not everyone bought this thesis, a pair of Canadian psychologists, Logan Annisette and Kathryn Lafreniere of the University of Windsor, decided it was interesting enough to test. They report in the journal Personality and Individual Differences that Carr just may be right.

In a study of 149 Canadian undergraduates, they found "participants who frequently texted, or used social media, were less likely to engage in reflective thought." What's more, they also "placed less emphasis on moral life goals," which suggests they haven't cultivated a sense of meaning that extends much beyond popularity.

If Facebook and Twitter are interfering with that learning process, we have a problem.

While the results are far from definitive proof, they're cause for concern, particularly because participants were "in the midst of their academic careers," a period when life goals are solidified, and deep concentration is a must.

The participants—129 women, 19 men, and one transgender person—reported the average number of text messages they send and receive each week, as well as the number of times they log onto Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and the amount of time they spend on each social media site.

They also took tests designed to reveal their personality traits, their goals in life, and their tendency to engage in self-reflection. They were asked to rate statements such as "I love to meditate on the nature and meaning of things," and "I love exploring my inner self," on a five-point scale from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree."

"Consistent with the 'shallowing' hypothesis, lower reflectiveness emerged as a significant predictor of social media usage," the researchers report. In addition, "students who frequently texted, or used ultra-brief social media, placed greater importance on 'morally shallow' life goals," such as those linked to "image and hedonism."

Annisette and Lafreniere concede it's "entirely possible" that the correlational chain runs in the other direction, with shallow people being more attracted to quick-hit social media. But the possibility that tweeting and texting encourages cursory thinking is a troubling one, especially given a 2009 study that found "students' use of reflective thinking was related significantly to their academic performance."

One could go ever farther and suggest that learning how to think critically is why we go to college in the first place. If Facebook and Twitter are interfering with that learning process, we have a problem: #dumbingourselvesdown.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.