Over the last 10 years the number of texts sent globally has increased more than 7,700%. With 18.7 billion texts sent every month worldwide, this explosion in digital communication technology over the last decade has been met by the world with open arms and active thumbs.
The digital natives of today are increasingly using text-based communication as their primary form of communication with friends and family, and this shows no signs of slowing. Video communication is also on the rise in line with massive advances in the processing power, enhanced hardware, and ubiquity of smart phones across the world. We are also seeing more and more companies using instant messaging to provide quick and convenient services to their customers and facilitate communication amongst staff (while I type this I have received a gif of a Capybara having a hot spring shower).
And why wouldn’t you take advantage of this technology? The ability to fire off a message (or photo, voice message, video, gif…) to friend, at any moment, in any part of the world, in a matter of seconds, and at almost zero cost is essentially a mini-miracle that we perform dozens of times a day with little thought to what is happening. Similarly, little thought is given to the limitations of computer mediated communication, especially when the conveniences they provide us are so glaring.
There is a growing sense that the youth of today are less ‘connected’ to each other than those of the past, which is often attributed to the rise in prevalence of digital communication. There is also an argument that increased digital communication has stunted socioemotional or empathic growth or, perhaps more importantly, the feeling of intimacy and connectiveness that face-to-face communication can bring us.
When we communicate with a friend or family member (or even a complete stranger) we are fostering a relationship which provides us with a feeling of connection and intimacy with that person. This connection is facilitated not just through the content of what we say, but also through our tone of voice, our body language, our eye contact, touch, and simply being present in the room with them. Is this something an emoji of a crying face and an eggplant can substitute for?
While very few people would argue that sending a text is as meaningful or relationship fostering as a tête-à-tête with a close friend, it could be argued that skyping or FaceTime-ing a friend is a second-best alternative. However, even video calling can deprive us of many of the basic facets of the face-to-face communication that we have evolved to need as social animals. Intimacy involves both an emotional and physical closeness, the latter of which is missing from video communication. Being unable to make eye contact for instance is something which is could easily be overlooked in its importance. Infants from the age of two have an affinity towards faces that are looking back at them and making eye contact consumes extra mental resources which increases the attention of the person you are talking to. How many times have you video called a friend while secretly scrolling through Instagram as they talk about their day?
One thing that is often overlooked in these discussions is the way in which digital communication can convert to real life communication. Think about how many friends you have that met their partner online – their relationship transgressed the digital space into not only an emotional, but to a physical relationship. Or what about those who boast about the experiences they can garner staying in Airbnb accommodation rather than a generic three-star hotel. Again, a connection that is unlikely to have been facilitated in the physical space, transgressed into a real-life experience. Whilst it can be argued that digital communication is not the same as face-to-face communication, what cannot be overlooked is the way it can be utilised to foster real life experiences that may have otherwise never occurred.
While research in this area is limited (with some research even suggesting that young adults can achieve the same level of social connectiveness using digital forms of communication than in person), it is worth a thought as to what is lost or gained in the ways we communicate with those around us. Simply put, human beings require intimacy to thrive, feel understood and listened to and we should be wise about the way in which we attempt to gain this using the technology of the day 👍
Are you ready to bridge the gap between psychology and technology?