Cyberspace might keep you socially happy, but in reality, social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook harm moral values, as they don't allow time for compassion or admiration, warn scientists.
According to a study from a neuroscience group led by corresponding author Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, emotions linked to our moral sense awaken slowly in the mind.
The finding suggests that digital media culture may be better suited to some mental processes than others.
"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," said first author Mary Helen Immordino-Yang.
Humans can sort information very quickly and can respond in fractions of seconds to signs of physical pain in others.
Admiration and compassion, two of the social emotions that define humanity, take much longer, Damasio's group found.
The study will appear next week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Online Early Edition.
"Damasio's study has extraordinary implications for the human perception of events in a digital communication environment," said media scholar Manuel Castells, holder of the Wallis Annenberg Chair of Communication Technology and Society at USC.
"Lasting compassion in relationship to psychological suffering requires a level of persistent, emotional attention," the expert added.
To reach the conclusion, study's authors used compelling, real-life stories to induce admiration for virtue or skill, or compassion for physical or social pain, in 13 volunteers (the emotion felt was verified through a careful protocol of pre- and post-imaging interviews).
Brain imaging showed that the volunteers needed six to eight seconds to fully respond to stories of virtue or social pain. However, once awakened, the responses lasted far longer than the volunteers' reactions to stories focused on physical pain.
The study raises questions about the emotional cost-particularly for the developing brain, of heavy reliance on a rapid stream of news snippets obtained through television, online feeds or social networks such as Twitter.
"If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people's psychological states and that would have implications for your morality," Immordino- Yang said.