Online versus real-life interactions: Generation mute
Whether it’s dating-app success stories, the virtual exchange of innovative new ideas, or the maintenance of long-distance relationships (platonic or romantic), the convenience and necessity of online communication in modern life is indisputable. In the digital age, we can communicate with vast networks (family, friends, co-workers and strangers) across borders, cultures and time zones. But has this increase in online communication come at the expense of our face-to-face interactions? We want to explore whether society has become too reliant on online communication and investigate its impact on mental health and our real-life connections.
An interesting place to start is phone calls, and the increase of 'telephonophobia' (fear of talking on the phone). Whilst we rely on our devices for day-to-day communication, many of us despise using our smartphones to do the very thing for which they were invented – to talk. Some demographics (millennials in particular, labelled ‘generation mute’) generally see phone calls as a huge pet peeve, preferring to text, Snapchat, DM or email than to talk via the phone. This might seem paradoxical for a generation who depend so heavily on their devices for connection and communication. A 2018 study by BankMyCell exploring the reasons behind this generational hatred for phone conversation surveyed over 1200 adults in their 20s and early 30s. Interestingly, responses showed an overwhelming dislike for the conventions (greetings, goodbyes, and making small talk) of verbal phone conversation, which are all avoidable via alternative forms of digital communication. Respondents cited another crucial difference: whilst messaging allows us time to respond on our own terms, phone calls are somewhat more invasive, and demand an instant verbal response. Surprisingly, the BankMyCell respondents revealed a greater tendency to dodge calls from friends and family than those from co-workers, with over 80% of those surveyed admitted to feeling anxious about talking on the phone. Almost 20% felt that they had to 'mentally prepare themselves' before making a call.
And this reluctance towards direct verbal communication extends beyond phone calls: unlike face-to-face interactions, online conversations are self-paced, and participants can reply at their own leisure. But crucially, real-life interactions are far more complex and multi-layered than those online. In face-to-face conversation, we pick up and utilise non-linguistic cues (facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice) - which are fundamental and innate aspects of human communication. In this sense, online communication is reductive, as we can’t employ these non-verbal cues during device-mediated conversation.
Because of these striking differences between communication online and in person, our habituation to message-based conversations via our devices might be rendering our person-to-person connections in real life more difficult and uncomfortable. “Generation mute”, largely raised in a digital age have become accustomed to (and even prefer) messaging and texting as their primary forms of communication, as opposed to face-to-face (or voice-to-voice). And in the social-distancing era, this problem has worsened: increasingly, people have reported experiencing 'post-lockdown anxiety', namely feeling anxious about reverting back to face-to-face interactions, after having adapted to solely virtual communication. Could online interactions slowly but surely be replacing real life interactions?
As the well-known saying goes, "To communicate is to be human". Psychologists have demonstrated this time and time again via the clear association between our social connections and improved health (both mental and physical), whilst social withdrawal has long been associated with a compromised life quality of life. An influential study (the first of its kind) by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University dating back to 1998 - a time when the scope of digital communication was a fraction of the size it is today - examined the social and psychological impacts of online communication on users over two years. Contrary to their predictions, they demonstrated that those that spent longest communicating via the Internet showed reduced quality of communication with immediate family, declines in social circle sizes, and, perhaps most notably, increases in depression and perceived loneliness. And whilst an upsurge in online communication has led to the size of our social networks increasing, research has revealed that the quality of our face-to-face interactions and social support networks is a far more important determiner of good mental health and wellbeing than the scope of our virtual network.
Ultimately, the digital age has rendered communication faster, easier, and allowed countless novel ideas to be dispersed over long distances. But (although it goes without saying) as technology inevitably becomes ever more sophisticated, we must ensure that the increasing ease and appeal of online communication does not come at the expense of face-to-face interactions and companionship, which are the true determiners of our mental wellbeing, social capabilities, and quality of life.
By Effie Webb
University of Oxford
First Published 5th August 2020
Mental Health Foundation (MHF)
Carnegie Mellon University