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Global research shows that digital contact does not enhance wellbeing

New research involving Nottingham Trent University (NTU) has found that during periods of limited face-to-face contact, such as that experienced by most people during Covid-19 lockdowns, digital contact is particularly harmful for young people’s wellbeing.

Hand holding a mobile phone
The mental wellbeing of young people over 16 was particularly impacted by video or text-based messaging apps

The research, led by the University of Kent, focused specifically on social isolation during the early stages of the pandemic, when restricted face-to-face interactions, widespread lockdowns and distancing measures were in place. Restrictions tested the capability of digital communication to foster social contact and wellbeing during this time.

The study, published by New Media and Society, suggests that video or text-based messaging apps in particular can have a negative effect on the mental wellbeing of young people over 16. For empathetic people, who readily recognise and align with others’ emotions, wellbeing was worst when communicating via video chat.

Despite the legal and health implications, face-to-face contact was still positively associated with wellbeing compared to digital contact. However, perceived household vulnerability to Covid-19 reduced the positive effect of face-to-face communication on wellbeing, but surprisingly, people’s own vulnerability did not. Findings show that people strived to remain socially connected while maintaining a physical distance, despite the tangible costs to their wellbeing.

The study is part of a larger international project, led by psychologist Dr Bahar Tunçgenç from NTU’s School of Social Sciences, which includes data from 110 countries.

Dr Tunçgenç said: ‘We know that face-to-face contact has lots of benefits for social communication, interactions and wellbeing. But at a time when face-to-face contact potentially incurred threat to the health and safety of ourselves and others, would digital contact replace its benefits?

“Our multi-national data show that only face-to-face contact was good for wellbeing. With the potential for further social isolation over the Winter period, these results are critically important to guide individual choices and encourage policies to support people’s physical and mental health.”

The first author of the study, Dr Martha Newson at Kent’s School of Anthropology and Conservation, said: “As a highly social species, human beings are able to adapt much of their social interactions to online modes, yet our research shows that not all our social needs can be fully met online. We found that ultimately, digital contact does not promote wellbeing in the way that face-to-face does.

“Further to this, young people reported no more face-to-face contact in relation to their digital contact than older people. Therefore, previous attempts to blame young people’s disregard for social distancing rules appears misplaced.

“Beyond the Covid-19 pandemic, we need more research to look into the impact that reduced physical interaction can have on young people and the implications of sustained, isolated digital contact.”

The research paper titled ‘Digital contact does not promote wellbeing, but face-to-face does: A cross-national survey during the Covid-19 pandemic’ is published by New Media and Society. doi: 10.1177/14614448211062164

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    About Nottingham Trent University

    Nottingham Trent University (NTU) was named University of the Year 2019 in the Guardian University Awards. The award was based on performance and improvement in the Guardian University Guide, retention of students from low-participation areas and attainment of BME students.

    NTU was also the Times Higher Education University of the Year 2017, and The Times and Sunday Times Modern University of the Year 2018. These awards recognise NTU for its high levels of student satisfaction, its quality of teaching, its engagement with employers, and its overall student experience.

    It is one of the largest UK universities. With over 37,000 students and more than 4,000 staff located across four campuses, the University injects £1.6bn into the UK economy. It has been the largest recruiter of UK undergraduates in each of the last four years. With an international student population of more than 6,000 and an NTU community representing around 160 countries, the University prides itself on its global outlook.

    The university is passionate about creating opportunities and its extensive outreach programme is designed to enable NTU to be a vehicle for social mobility. NTU is among the UK’s top five recruiters of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and was awarded University of the Year in the UK Social Mobility Awards 2019.

Global research shows that digital contact does not enhance wellbeing

Published on 8 December 2021
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Social Sciences

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