The phone is better at reducing stress, too
Written by – Tom Jacobs
When it comes to technology, many of us reflexively assume newer is better. So when Covid-19 forced us into isolation a year ago, we turned to our digital devices to stay in touch with family and friends.
New research suggests our instinct to communicate via video chats and social media may not be the optimal choice. Rather, the technology that is proving most effective at reducing pandemic-induced stress and loneliness is one that was already available during the influenza outbreak of 1918: the telephone.
In a U.S. survey of almost 2,000 adults last May, participants responded to questions about their emotional health and their use of various electronic devices. The results, published in the journal Human Communication & Technology, showed that those who kept in touch with friends and family over the phone reported lower levels of stress and loneliness than those who used newer tools such as Zoom.
“Voice calls actually alleviated stress even more than face-to-face communication.”
“For combating loneliness, the effect of voice calls was really close to face-to-face,” says study author Natalie Pennington, a communications studies professor at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. “Voice calls actually alleviated stress even more than face-to-face communication.”
She and her colleagues found that the loneliest and most stressed people of all were active users of social media, those who spent their time posting, sharing, and commenting on other people’s posts. Facebook and Instagram may be addictive, but like most addictions, they ultimately satisfy a craving instead of a need — in this case, a need for connection.
I spoke with Pennington — over the phone, of course — about these findings and what they suggest about human-to-human communication in a high-tech world.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Elemental: Your findings are somewhat counterintuitive because video chatting would seem to be the next best thing to in-person interaction. Were you surprised that these conversations appeared to actually increase stress and loneliness?
Natalie Pennington: Yes. This was the beginning of the pandemic, so it wasn’t about “Zoom fatigue” — we had just started using it. Theory suggests that video chat should fall between face-to-face and phone [in terms of fostering intimacy and connection], but it just doesn’t.
Isn’t part of the stress of video calls centered around a perceived need to continually make eye contact? That can be tough.
Absolutely. But that depends on the nature of your relationship. With my best friends, I know I can be a little more casual. I’m not going to be judged.
I can be washing dishes or walking the dog while I talk on the phone with my mom or my boss. The energy required for a video chat is quite a bit higher — even more than face to face. It becomes harder and harder as you add more people, and everyone is talking over each other.
You found being on social media was related to higher levels of stress and loneliness, which a lot of research also found pre-pandemic — scrolling through social media often makes us feel worse. Were there pandemic-specific issues as well?
Yes, there’s lots of research showing passive browsing behavior on social media is often linked to loneliness and distress. But past work has also found that direct communicating via Facebook or Twitter, where I’m messaging you and you’re responding to me, can be a form of connection that leads one to feel better. That wasn’t the case here.
We found that direct messaging, posting, commenting, and sharing were associated with greater loneliness and stress [in the early part of the pandemic]. People may be using this as a way to ruminate on the pandemic. At the same time, you had a very contentious election cycle, and the issue of race in America came to a head. These were conversations people were having on social media. The topics were inherently stressful.
So instead of “Look what I did this weekend,” it was “Look at the horrible things happening in our country.” Not a way to lower stress.
The least stressed-out people in your survey were in a relationship but not using social media. But the most stressed-out were in a relationship and were using social media. What’s up with that?
That’s an interesting one to try to make sense of. I think that, when you’re in a relationship, you’re less lonely and stressed [as a rule]. In terms of the pandemic, there is the “we’re in this together” mentality. But social media can disrupt that. I interviewed people who told me their partner broke up with them because of social media use. They were tired of waiting to hang out with them in person. There’s all kinds of research on Facebook jealousy. This can be exacerbated if you’re already stressed and feeling lonely due to the pandemic.
Let’s talk about a slightly older technology: e-mail. Did its use help alleviate loneliness and stress?
There we saw an age difference. People in middle age or older felt less lonely when they used e-mail. However, for those 29 or younger, e-mail was associated with more loneliness.
How do you explain that?
E-mail was one of the first entry points for internet communication for people who are 49 years plus. It was a way to connect with your friends. So they have a comfort with e-mail as a way to socially communicate. For those 29 or younger, they had cellphones when they were in their teens. They see e-mail as a tool for use at school or work. It’s not for social connection.
So what types of communication are you personally using to lower stress and stay connected?
My husband and I moved to Nevada three years ago this summer. Most of our family and friends are in the Midwest or on the East Coast. That first year and half, everyone wanted to visit us! We’re in Vegas! Then, suddenly, we had no houseguests.
I’ve done some virtual happy hours. I’ve also done virtual game nights. I think if you make [a video chat] more of an event, it can help. Video chats where you’re also doing something are more manageable. But you have to set appropriate expectations going in. I have found virtual happy hours work better with friends that I know really well, as opposed to co-workers that I don’t know quite as well.
One of my favorite things to do is to have Netflix parties. If you have a Netflix account, there’s an add-on program that allows you and your friends to watch a movie at the same time while there’s a sidebar chat bar open. Me and three of my friends have watched episodes of TV this way, and we recently tried a movie. We’re watching at the exact same time, and when one person pauses it, it pauses it for everyone. This definitely creates a sense of closeness that we wouldn’t have otherwise.
Do you think some of these creative ideas will survive past the pandemic?
I really hope so! One of the best things about technology in the past 20 years is finding ways to sustain connections between people who don’t live close to each other. [Because of the pandemic], we’ve found ways to connect that we might not have otherwise.
So if you’re itching to get back together with your friends but can’t get a vaccine for a couple more months, is picking up the phone a good way to safely satisfy your need for connection?
Yes! If you are unable to see people face-to-face in a safe way, try a phone call. It can be really helpful. I’m in my thirties. A lot of people of my generation or younger tend to avoid voice calls in favor of text-based communication. But with the pandemic, they’ve realized that it’s nice to talk on the phone.
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