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Twitter Leads to Immorality? C’mon!

Yesterday we heard Fox News reporting that Facebook may be responsible for lower GPA scores and now today a new study comes to light claiming that rapid-fire media – like that of Twitter for instance – can actually impact our moral compass. In fact, the study says the fast-moving nature of some online social spaces may not provide us with the time we as humans need to feel higher emotions like admiration and compassion.

You Twitter? Your Moral Compass May Be Broken

Yesterday’s study about Facebook’s impact on GPA scores was not a conclusive, comprehensive report. Instead, it was simply a set of preliminary discoveries that Ohio State researcher Aryn Karpinski said could be looked into deeper. In fact, she asserts that most media reports overstate her findings – she just found a connection and more should be done to study the matter. “What I found is so exploratory — people need to chill out,” she was quoted as saying.

But right on the heels of that news – exploratory or not – comes another report that may even be more damaging: social media could lead to amorality. At least that appears to be the overall takeaway from this new report.

In this case, a study from a neuroscience group led by Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, suggests that our digital media culture may lend itself better to some mental processes than others. And the ones it doesn’t lend itself that well to? You guessed it: moral decision-making.

No Time for Reflection

According to first author Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, “for some kinds of thought, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection.” Unfortunately, in our “real-time” web of information flow, some things happen too fast for us to process. This leads to us never being able to fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states. “That would have implications for your morality,” said Immordino-Yang.

During the study, the researchers shared compelling, real-life stories with volunteers to induce emotions like admiration for virtue or skill or compassion for physical or social pain. Brain imaging scans showed the volunteers needed six to eight seconds to fully respond to stories of pain. Of course, when it comes to the rapid stream of news from TV, online feeds, Twitter, and definitely the new real-time interface of Friendfeed, 6 to 8 seconds could feel like an eternity – and a period in which a million new items floated past our field of vision.

We have the ability to sort this flowing information quickly, but developing deeper feelings – the social emotions that define humanity – takes much longer. And who has the time?

Fear-Mongering about Digital Media, Take 3?

Media scholar Manuel Castells, holder of the Wallis Anneberg Chair of Communication Technology and Society at USC went on to further interpret the findings saying, “in a media culture in which violence and suffering becomes an endless show, be it in fiction or in infotainment, indifference to the vision of human suffering gradually sets in.”

We can’t help but feel we’ve heard similar strains of this same argument before. Doesn’t it remind you of that old saying “TV will rot your brain?” Or maybe it’s a throwback to the worrisome findings from the past decade about how violent video games supposedly lead to actual violence. It seems that our society is always concerned about how digital media will impact our humanity. And there’s always a way to show that it has negative effects.

But is digital media really that bad? We think not. Maybe we can’t properly feel the correct amount of compassion or pain when watching the Twitter stream update in TweetDeck, but is the Twitter stream really the place to go to experience these emotions anyway?

Case in point, watching the tweets about the Hudson River plane crash was exciting in the sense that we were getting the news first, all fresh, raw, and unprocessed. But it wasn’t until later, watching TV interviews with the survivors telling their stories and speaking of the pilot’s heroism that the emotions really kicked in. Is that not OK for some reason?

It seems to us that what should matter to humanity is that we do, in fact, still feel things…even if we might not feel them right away from a tweet.

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The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

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