social media is making us shallow, says science

New studies link social media usage to the “shallowing hypothesis.” It sounds pretty accurate, but it’s not the whole story.

Emily Manning

Kim Kardashian's Madame Tussaud's wax figure via @kimkardashian

Last Friday, The Independent published a piece regarding two recent psychological studies evaluating the "shallowing hypothesis," or the theory that the development of communication technologies (namely texting and social media platforms) has lead to a serious decline in "reflective" thought. Basically: since we're becoming more accustomed to shorter and quicker means of communication, our brains, too, have become wired for fast, snappy transmissions. Though the hypothesis was perhaps most notably presented in Nicholas G Carr's Pulitzer-nominated 2010 book The Shallows, two more recent trials have found that this decline in reflective thought correlates to "a decline in importance placed on morality and an increase in importance placed on hedonism and image," says the paper.

One study -- "Texting Frequency and The Moral Shallowing Hypothesis" -- was published by the University of Winnipeg in 2013. It sampled over 2,000 students by devising a questionnaire about texting habits and life goals (including wealth, image, community, altruism, and spirituality). Results found that "self-reported texting frequency was weakly but consistently positively associated with outgroup prejudice and materialism, and negatively associated with traits and life goals linked to morally engaged reflective thought." This study was followed by "Social media, texting, and personality: A test of the shallowing hypothesis," a scholarly article published in the February 2016 issue of the Personality and Individual Differences journal, which largely supported its findings.

This information won't be surprising to many people, least of all to Nancy Jo Sales. Last month, the journalist and author published American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, a nearly 400-page tome analyzing social media's seismic effect on adolescent development, particularly its harmful impacts on teenage girls. Sales' findings -- a combination of research and exhaustive interviews with over 200 young women -- are often jarring. Extending far beyond cognitive and moral shallowness, she explores the real-world ramifications of sexualization, cyber bullying, and violent crime (the book's press kit comes with a Xeroxed copy of this article).

Social media platforms directly quantify influence; followers, likes, and comments are actual currencies these days -- just ask the Kardashians. When operating an individual account composed of personal images and thoughts, it's difficult not to view these metrics as measures of self worth in some capacity, just as it's difficult for the mechanics of ubiquitous mass communicative platforms not to impact what we're thinking about and how we're thinking about it. But I'm having a hard time wholly believing that social media is making us all vacuous shells capable of thinking two sentences at a time -- or that it's impeding our capacity for meaningful thought -- when there are so many people using these platforms for critical conversations and as a means to enact sociopolitical change.

There are lots of theories about selfies. Sales argues that girls today are not only constantly exposed to objectifying images, but feel immense pressure to produce and share their own self-sexualizing images. "This pervasive sexualization of women and girls suggests to girls that sexual appeal is the most important aspect of their being, more than brains or talent or personality." In a sense, the "shallowing hypothesis" in practice. Though Sales is correct, selfies and self-sexualization are often unfairly elided. For many marginalized people, selfies and the social media platforms they're disseminated through exist as an authentic and unfiltered form of representation, celebration, and affirmation where mainstream media has so often denied it.

The first International Transgender Day of Visibility was celebrated in 2009, thanks to the efforts of Michigan-based activist Rachel Crandall. Crandall was inspired to launch the event as a reaction to the lack of events dedicated to exalting the LGBT community, citing the Transgender Day of Remembrance as an important occasion, but one that ultimately mourns people who lost their lives to transphobic violence. In seeking to celebrate the trans experience, Crandall said the response to a call for a day of visibility was overwhelming but that, "I've heard from some people who said they would love to be visible but it's just not safe where they are." Blackout Day -- a recurring event that encourages the proliferation of images celebrating the beauty of everyday blackness -- employs social media and selfies to similar ends. Though the Internet is far from a safe space, it has provided a platform for people and communities lacking positive representation in the mainstream media to share their stories and celebrate their experiences. Selfies are important.

There is a difference between digital visibility and IRL action, but as social media becomes a dominant mode of communication, it's important to explore how they're linked. As The Atlantic's Jared Keller argued, Twitter failed as an on-the-ground organizational tool in the Green Revolution -- the demonstrations and protests that rocked Iran following the crooked re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009 -- but it nevertheless played an important role: it gave the movement critical international visibility. "The Green revolution was a Twitter revolution; while social media fell short organizationally, it brought the violence in the streets of Tehran to the forefront of the geopolitical conversation," wrote Keller.

But the most meaningful connection between social media and the street would take shape four years later during the summer of 2013, when Oakland-based labor organizer Alicia Garza posted a hashtag, #BLACKLIVESMATTER, as a response to George Zimmerman's acquittal. Since then, the hashtag has become a movement that has mobilized some of the most paramount civil rights activism since the early 60s. It's not only pressured federal investigations of police practices across America, it has, as Bijan Stephen argued in his phenomenal Wired profile, "changed the visceral experience of being black in America." "Any large social movement is shaped by the technology available to it and tailors its goals, tactics, and rhetoric to the media of its time," Stephen writes before outlining the ways in which the decentralized, non-hierarchical movement comes alive across an array of social media platforms. "If you want to post a video of a protest or a violent arrest, you put it up on Vine, Instagram, or Periscope. If you want to avoid trolls or snooping authorities and you need to coordinate some kind of action, you might chat privately with other activists on GroupMe...If you want to mobilize a ton of people you might not know and you do want the whole world to talk about it: Twitter."

People have long decried the brain-rot and moral bankruptcy they perceive to accompany developments in communication technology. And sure, my life's correspondence of "lol ayeee!"s doesn't exactly parallel the poetry of Baudelaire's letters. But to suggest that social media use is making us shallow seems one-sided. You know what actually is one-sided? Newspapers and traditional media outlets, chief among them, television. Its content is conferred upon and created by people with some form of institutional power, then broadcast to a population who -- until the advent of social media -- had little ability to immediately share the "reflective thoughts" they had about the "hedonistic images" they saw. If awareness of issues, individuals, histories, and opinions I'd otherwise probably never be exposed to is making me a moral or hedonistic, welp, see you in hell. 


Text Emily Manning
Photography Ash Kingston