Communicating with Digital Technology: Does it Make You Closer or Get in the Way of Romance?

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Lucia F. O'Sullivan, Ph.D.

There is a lot of media alarm about the dangers of new technologies, with concerns that they are making millennials in particular unable to relate on a one-to-one basis (see http://bit.ly/2idx2vu for example).   But where is the research to support this claim?  Some research shows that communicating via digital technology actually accelerates intimacy because messages can be transmitted, received and reciprocated all day (and all night) long.1-2 Others find that the content of these communications tends be quite superficial.3

To test the question that a reliance on digital technology to communicate is damaging to one’s romantic relationship, Andrea Boyle and Lucia O’Sullivan conducted a study surveying 359 millennials (18-24 years of age) about their technology use and face-to-face contributions, as well as relationship intimacy and communication quality.4 To be included in the study, all participants had to be in an established romantic relationship and to have daily communication of some form with their partner. (Those living far apart were excluded because it is harder for these couples to maintain daily communication).

A few key findings emerged!

Time spent communicating through technology was less than time spent communicating face-to-face.

Face-to-face communication was definitely rated as being of higher quality than was communicating via digital technology.

CMC is clearly used here for everyday communication to connect offline partners throughout the day rather than for highly intimate exchange.

Those who self-disclosed a wider range of topics about themselves through digital technologies, especially positive types of information, reported greater intimacy and higher relationship quality (compared to those who disclosed fewer things or negative things about themselves).

And for the grand finale, we found that spending time interacting through digital technologies did not displace the amount of time spent with one’s partner in-person.

 

Boyle, A., & O’Sullivan, L. F. (2016).  Staying connected: Technology use, computer-mediated communication and relationship outcomes among college students. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 19, 299-307.

Joinson, A. N. (2001). Self-disclosure in computer-mediated communication: The role of self-awareness and visual anonymity. European Journal of Social Psychology, 31, 177-192.

Walther, J. B., Loh, T., & Granka, L. (2005). Let me count the ways: The interchange of verbal and nonverbal cues in computer-mediated and face-to-face affinity. Journal of Language and Social psychology, 24, 36-65.

Attrill, A., & Jalil, R. (2011). Revealing only the superficial me: Exploring categorical self-disclosure online. Computers in Human Behavior, 27, 1634-1642.