Helping a stressed friend in person more effective than through texts, study finds

KELOWNA, British Columbia — Texting is convenient, but it may not be the most effective method of communication during times of crisis. A new study finds that helping out a friend experiencing a stressful situation in person (as opposed to guiding them with texts) results in a more positive end result.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada recruited 252 young adults, aged 18 to 25, for an experiment in which the efficacy of different types of social support were evaluated.

Friends sitting on a bench
A new study finds that helping a friend through a stressful period is more effective and positive when done in person as opposed to text messages.

Participants in the study were first assigned a stressful task, which was followed by being paired with a similarly-aged peer.

Of the 252 participants, 188 received support from a stranger, while the remaining 64 received support from a close friend. The participants were randomly assigned to either receive in-person support, support through text messaging, or no support at all.

In both groups, talking to a friend in-person was associated with better emotional outcomes, despite the popularity of texting.

“It was fairly clear that even though people may be connected socially through a device, it may not be the best way to communicate during a stressful experience,” says lead researcher Susan Holtzman, an associate professor at the university, in a press release.

Holtzman noted how mood was significantly improved among those who received in-person support.

As for why face-to-face communication is so important, it would seem as if the presence of visual and auditory cues may play a big role.

“Social support has been identified as one of the most powerful predictors of well-being, particularly during times of stress,” says Holtzman. “Our results suggest that there may be costs to an increasing reliance on digital forms of communication, such as text messaging, to connect and exchange support with our social networks.”

Previous research has shown that merely hearing the voice of one’s mother or viewing photographs of one’s family can combat stress.

In addition, text messages lack the nuance of spoken communication, allowing one’s message to be misinterpreted.

That’s not to say that texting doesn’t have its merits.

“We don’t want to say that texting is good or bad as there are definite benefits when it comes to using text messages to communicate— especially when people don’t feel comfortable making a phone call or reaching out face-to-face,” says Holtzman.

“But we still have a long way to go in understanding how to best support people through text messages and other forms of digital communication,” she argues.

The study’s findings were published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.


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