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The Internet versus face-to-face interactions - is the Internet enough?

Posted Jan 09 2011 9:01pm
Possibly one of the most memorable pictures from my introduction to psychology course in college was this picture of one of Harlow’s monkeys.  

The poor little baby monkey just looked so desperate, reaching for the bottle attached to one “mother” while clinging to the other “mother,” and it burned an image and an understanding about human nature in my brain: food may be a basic need for survival, but it doesn’t trump comfort from another being

Let me explain.  Harry Harlow conducted a series of experiments in the 1950s and 1960s with infant monkeys, who were taken from their mothers only weeks after birth. In the psychology world, people just refer to them as "Harlow's monkeys."  In the picture you see here, these monkeys were provided two surrogate mothers: a soft, terry-cloth covered mother who did not supply food, and a hard, wire mother who did supply food (the bottle you see pictured).  The infant monkeys clung to the terry cloth mother for comfort and wouldn’t leave, even for food.  When the mothers were within reaching distance, the monkeys would remain holding onto their terry cloth mother and reach for the food on the other mother.  They spent more time with the cuddly mother than with the food-providing mother.

Granted, neither of these mothers were the real thing, but the study suggests there is something about the touch and comfort-giving capability of the terry cloth mother that made her preferred over the purely instrumental need-providing mother.   
Recently, a study reported in Social Indicators Research examined whether Internet communication with friends and family was just as effective as face-to-face interactions in predicting satisfaction with life (or quality of life).   
This reminded me of old Harlow’s monkeys.  Though his work was focused on parenting, it highlighted that there is something more important going on in our relationships than instrumental support; there’s something about interactions with family and friends that provides individuals with comfort.  In fact, since his time, the relationship between social interactions and well-being has been well established and is often referred to as “social support” - is "social support" it still there when this interaction is mediated through the Internet?  Put another way, how important is the nearness to another human being?  Or are the words enough?
If you are reading this blog, you don’t have to be hit over the head with the social expansion of the Internet over the last 5 years; email, instant chat, Facebook, twitter, blogs, and skype all make it seem as though we have never been so connected to family and friends (especially with those living far away) in all history of mankind.  However, is this interaction able to take the place of, or even supplement, seeing loved ones in person, as it pertains to our well-being? 
According to this recent study, it is not enough.  The researchers guess this has something to do with the lack of non-verbal cues, lack of warmth, and the laziness of communication associated with Internet communication.  The internet may make it easier to communicate a message, even tell people things that are close to our hearts, but this is apparently a lot like receiving food from our wire surrogate mothers – very utilitarian, not so comforting.  We need that soft terry cloth of a touch to send our well-being soaring. 
So what do we do in this online-obsessed, social-media crazed world?  You don’t have to eschew those friend requests or instant message pop-up windows, but understand that these mediums perform a certain function for us, and are great at times, but email, chat, or Facebook updates cannot replace real interactions.  Take care to meet face-to-face with those who live near enough to do so and supplement with the Internet as needed.  Remember, the words exchange over the Internet may be important, but they don’t trump the physical comfort of another human being.For more information:Lee, P., Leung, L., Lo, V., Xiong, C., Wu, T. (2011). Internet communication versus face-to-face interaction in quality of Life.  Social Indicators Research, 100; 375-389.

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