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Students Who Use Facebook More for Self-Promotion Show Less Concern for Others

When W. Pitt Derryberry, an associate professor of psychology at Western Kentucky University, began to survey college students about their technology use, he expected to find technology responsible for declines in moral judgment among students. What he found was that it was how students used technology, rather than just the amount of time spent with high-tech tools, that led to moral lapses.

Male students, for example, reported less use of technology than did their female counterparts, but they were more likely to indicate that their use was for self-serving purposes.

Mr. Derryberry and Meghan M. Saculla, an adjunct psychology instructor at Flagler College, surveyed 279 students to look at connections between their use of technology and their moral judgment—particularly their ability to understand the societal implications of their behavior. Their paper on the results of the study will be presented later this week at the American Educational Research Association conference.

Over all, students who frequently used social media as a tool for self-promotion and a vehicle to increase their popularity were more likely to be narcissistic and exhibit less nuanced moral reasoning than those who didn’t. Posting hundreds of pictures or self-involved status updates are examples of such behavior, and men were more likely to say they engaged in this behavior than were women, the study found.

Earlier research has identified a decline among college students in that outward-looking moral judgment, referred to as “postconventional reasoning,” and surmised that increased use of technology might be responsible.

Participants in the study were asked about how often and in what way they used social media, mobile phones, and portable MP3 players and were also given surveys to assess their level of narcissism and moral judgment.

But merely using those tools doesn’t automatically make students more narcissistic or self-involved.

“It’s not as much about the usage as about the attitudes,” says Ms. Saculla, who conducted the research for her master’s thesis at Western Kentucky.

Ms. Saculla also cautions that the technology might not make students any more narcissistic—it’s just as plausible that the technology merely provides a medium for narcissistic people to strut their stuff.

The study also found that first-year students used technology more and had a lower level of postconventional reasoning than did upperclassmen.

Mr. Derryberry, who oversaw the research and has focused on moral judgment in much of his work, thinks that difference might be attributable to the moral development that occurs as part of a student’s growth in college, but he says he hopes to do a longitudinal study in the future to trace the moral development and technology usage of students as they progress in their academic careers.

The study also suggested that narcissism and postconventional reasoning don’t automatically cancel each other out. The authors point to politicians and the examples of high-profile celebrities, such as Bono, Angelina Jolie, and Brad Pitt, known for their humanitarian efforts.

“There are some very principled narcissists,” Mr. Derryberry says.

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