- Psychologists are interested in the potential link between digital communications and mental health.
- Research suggests that face-to-face communications are linked to better mental health.
- Text-based communication appears to predict mental health better than videoconferencing.
With the advance of our digital age and social media, many forms of social commerce that used to require face-to-face interaction have been augmented, and at times supplanted, by digital means. These days, you need not face your bank teller, travel agent, store clerk, restaurant staff, investment consultant, doctor, or therapist, for that matter, to do business with them. In many ways, this constitutes progress, as digital technologies can make the machinations of work and leisure faster, less taxing, and more efficient. But everything comes at a price. As the prevalence and cache of face-to-face interaction wane, some unique benefits may also be lost.
Social scientists have long been interested in the potential cost we incur by outsourcing our traditional face-to-face ways to digital technology. Two central questions guide much of this research. Do we lose something substantial regarding health and well-being when we turn away from face-to-face communication? And if so, why?
The Covid-19 pandemic has provided social scientists with a unique opportunity to study these questions, as millions of people were forced to replace face-to-face interactions with digital ones, creating what scientists call a “natural experiment.”
A new study (2023) in the journal Nature sought to capitalize on the unique conditions created by the pandemic to provide fresh insights into the questions. A team of Austrian scientists led by Stefan Stieger collected data on over 400 participants’ communication and mental health over a four-week span during the pandemic lockdown period, using the technique of “experience sampling,” a commonly used longitudinal research technique that involves asking participants to repeatedly report on their thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and/or environment on multiple occasions over a period of time. The study had participants report, at the end of each day, their mental health, time spent on face-to-face communication, and time spent on digital text-based communication (e.g., e-mail, WhatsApp), videoconferencing (e.g., Zoom), and telephone calls, as well as outdoor and physical activities.
The results suggest that face-to-face communication indeed differs significantly from digital communication in terms of mental health. The authors found that:
People who generally spent more time on face-to-face and digital text communication during the lockdown had better mental health than people who generally spent less time on face-to-face and digital text communication…and vice-versa.
In addition, “mental health was also better on days when people spent more time on face-to-face communication than usual.”
Looking at the link between various communication modalities and mental health, the researchers found that face-to-face communication was “the most important predictor” of mental health during the lockdown, followed by age (older people fared better), and digital text communication, all of which were more predictive of mental health than physical and outdoor activity. Interestingly, videoconferencing, telephone communication, and gender were not strongly linked to mental health during lockdown.
The authors stated:
Our results are clear: face-to-face communication was much more important for lockdown mental health than digital communication…The multitude of digital communication devices and services available in the Western world still appear to be unequal substitutes for face-to-face interaction.
So, these data suggest that the answer to the first question is yes. Face-to-face communication appears to predict better mental health. Now, what about the second question?
Prominent theorizing about this question proposes that face-to-face interactions may be more beneficial than digital communications because they convey richer, more nuanced personal and social information (body language, voice pitch, mimic, eye gaze, head position, etc.), thus facilitating higher levels of intimacy and trust among participants. An evolutionary argument may also be advanced: we have evolved with face-to-face communications. Thus, the ability to (unconsciously) detect important yet subtle cues about each other (are you friend or foe?) during face-to-face contact is likely coded into our neuropsychology. Not so for digital communications.
Yet the authors noted that in their data:
Digital text communication was much more predictive of lockdown mental health than videoconferencing, even though videoconferencing allows communication partners to experience many more visual and audible cues than digital text communication.
These findings are surprising as they appeared to contradict the “rich communication” hypothesis.
The authors speculated that videoconferencing:
Can cause adverse effects such as mental tiredness…anxiety due to a focus on appearance, prolonged eye contact, larger faces due to screen size, and the perceived dominance of a communication partner due to low camera position; and cognitive burden due to the slight technological asynchrony of video calls.
They suggested, in addition, that videoconferencing in their sample may have been used mostly in work situations, thus accounting for its less-than-positive effect.
Still, the benefits of text over video, if replicated, and the potential links between videoconferencing and mental strain (“zoom fatigue”) await a full explanation, particularly since post-pandemic digital video applications have spread into multiple realms of service, including education, health, and psychotherapy.
In sum, these findings join an emerging body of literature pointing in the same direction. In the words of the authors: “technology-mediated communication is not capable to be a substitute for a face-to-face communication.”
At least not yet. As the rapid recent advance of AI’s abilities to generate high-quality natural language texts demonstrates, technology’s capacity to usurp long-cherished human functions should not be underestimated. Soon, your robot friend may be able to interact face-to-face with you without mediating (and alienating) screens, and the interaction may prove more beneficial in terms of mental health than a conversation with your flesh and blood pals. Whether this is a future to hope for or dread is a question for another column.