The impact of communication technologies on life and relationshipsatisfactionJoy Goodman-Deanea*, Anna Mieczakowskia, Daniel Johnsonb, Tanya Goldhabera, P. JohnClarksona1Engineering Design Centre, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge,Trumpington Street, Cambridge CB2 1PZ, UK2Science and Engineering Faculty, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia* Corresponding author: Phone: 44-1223-766958; E-mail:[email protected] Previous studies have shown a relationship between the use of communications technologyand well-being, particularly mediated through its effect on personal relationships. However, there issome debate over whether this effect is positive or negative. The present study explored this issuefurther, examining whether the effect varies depending on the type of communications technology,and the nature of the personal relationship. An online survey was conducted with 3,421 participants inthree countries (Australia, UK and US). It examined the use of ten communication methods, overallsatisfaction with life and satisfaction with four different kinds of relationships (close and extendedfamily, and close and distant friends).Results indicate that richer communication methods, which include non-verbal cues, were positivelyassociated with both overall satisfaction with life and satisfaction with relationships. These methodsincluded face-to-face communication, and phone and video calls. Conversely, more restrictedmethods, such as text messaging and instant messaging, were negatively associated with bothvariables. Social networking was negatively associated with overall satisfaction, but not withsatisfaction with relationships. The strength of the association between a communications method andsatisfaction with a relationship varied depending on the type of relationship, but whether it waspositive or negative did not change.Keywords: Communications technology; Social media; Relationships; Social connectedness; Wellbeing1.IntroductionThe nature of communication has changed significantly over the last few decades with theadvent of the Internet and mobile communications. These communications technologies(CTs) are becoming increasingly popular with recent surveys showing that 91% of Britishhouseholds have mobile phones (Dutton & Blank, 2013), 83% of UK adults use the internet(Ofcom, 2014), and 73% do so every day (Office of National Statistics, 2013).As these forms of communication become increasingly ubiquitous, it is important to examinetheir impact on people’s lives, well-being and relationships. They have many potentialbenefits, enabling people to stay in touch with friends and family members across the worldmore easily and quickly. In line with this, several studies have indicated a positive association
between the use of these technologies and well-being and relationships (e.g. Grieve et al.,2013; Kraut et al., 2002; Wang & Wang, 2011). However, other studies have indicateddetrimental effects, particularly on the strength and nature of relationships (e.g. Kraut et al.,1998; Kross et al., 2013; Shklovski et al., 2004). There is debate about the reasons for thesecontradictory findings, but one possibility is that the effect of communications technologies isnot uniform (c.f. Best et al., 2014). The aim of the current research was to explore whetherthe effects vary depending on the type of communications technology, and the nature of thepersonal relationship.1.1Background: Communications technology and relationshipsSome studies have examined the impact of communications technology (CT) on subjectivewell-being, i.e. on people’s perceptions of their well-being, and their satisfaction with life(e.g. Chesley, 2005; Gross, 2004; Kraut et al., 1998; Schiffrin et al., 2010). However, wellbeing is a broad measure with many facets, covering issues such as standard of living, health,achievement and relationships. These individual facets are more susceptible to change thanthe overall measure, and more likely to be affected by factors such as the use of technology(Cummins et al., 2003; Diener et al., 2003).Therefore, many studies have focused on the impact of CT on more specific aspects of wellbeing. In particular, much of the previous work has focused on its impact on relationships.This is because CT is an inherently social technology, and therefore seems likely to affectrelationships in particular. This is backed up by Valkenburg and Peter (2007)’s finding thatinstant messaging affected well-being through the mediating variables of time with friendsand quality of friendships.There have been a large number of studies examining CTs and relationships. However, theydo not all agree, with different studies giving very different (and even contradictory) findings(Best et al., 2014). There are various different theories about the effects of CTs (particularlyonline CTs), but they mostly fall into two main, opposing camps, as described below.1.1.1 Negative effectsSome argue that online communication has an overall negative effect on relationships. Inparticular, the displacement hypothesis suggests that online communication takes time awayfrom face-to-face communication, weakening relationships, and encouraging weakrelationships at the expense of strong ones (Kraut et al., 1998).Several studies have found evidence supporting the displacement theory. In particular, Nieand Erbring (2002) found that “the more time people spend using the Internet, the more theylose contact with their social environment”. A follow-up study used time diaries to identifythat “time online is largely an asocial activity that competes with, rather than complements,face-to-face social time” (Nie et al., 2002). In addition, Shklovski et al. (2004) found that“heavy use of the Internet is associated with reductions in the likelihood of visiting family orfriends on a randomly selected day”. Another example is Lee (2009)'s study which indicatedthat online communication displaces time with parents, though not with friends.
Schiffrin et al. (2010) also argue for the negative effects of online CTs. They found thatpeople generally perceived computer-mediated communication to be less useful than face-toface communication, and suggest that replacing face-to-face with online communication islikely to have a negative effect on relationships and well-being. In line with this, they did findan association between Internet use and reduced well-being.Other studies have also found negative associations between particular types of onlinecommunication, well-being and relationship satisfaction (Chesley, 2005; Kross et al., 2013).Some studies further point out that some individuals (e.g., those who are lonely or have poorsocial skills) run the danger of developing compulsive, harmful Internet use behaviours (Kimet al., 2009; Muusses et al., 2014).1.1.2 Positive effectsIn contrast, others argue that online communication has a positive effect on relationships. Inparticular, the stimulation or increase hypothesis proposes that online communication buildsup and augments existing social ties, thus helping to strength relationships. For example, theauthors of (PEW Internet and American Life Project, 2000) said “This survey provides clearevidence that e-mail and the Web have enhanced users’ relationships with their family andfriends—results that challenge the notion that the Internet contributes to isolation”.Several other studies have provided support for this hypothesis. For example, Valkenburg andPeter (2007) found that online communication in adolescents was positively associated withtime spent with existing friends and the quality of these friendships. Similarly, Wang andWang (2011) found that instant messaging among adolescents was mostly used with existingfriends, and positively associated with well-being. They suggest: “it may be that onlinecommunication with existing friends can promote users’ interaction in offline settings, whichcould strengthen their closeness to friends and improve their subjective well-being”.More generally, several studies have found positive associations between onlinecommunication, well-being and relationships (Bessière et al., 2008; Grieve et al., 2013; Shaw& Gant, 2002). In particular, Kraut et al. (2002) followed up his earlier study (Kraut et al.,1998) that had shown negative associations and that led to him proposing the displacementhypothesis. The follow-up study indicated that many of the negative effects of onlinecommunication had dissipated, being replaced by mostly positive effects on communication,social involvement and well-being. They suggested that this may be due to a change in thenature of the Internet. In particular, as more people moved online, Internet use became lessisolating. However, it should be noted that Kraut did not abandon the displacement theoryentirely (c.f. Shklovski et al., 2004).Other studies look at new relationships formed online, as well as the impact of CTs onexisting relationships. They highlight that many relationships formed online can be “real,deep and meaningful” (McKenna et al., 2002), thus having a positive impact on lifesatisfaction and well-being. McKenna et al. further explain that negative associations ofonline communication with well-being are often based on a small percentage of the sample,with the vast majority not reporting these ill effects.
1.1.3 Reasons for the conflicting findingsThere are various possible reasons for these differences in findings, including differences inmethodologies, measures and robustness in the studies (c.f. Best et al., 2014). Anotherpossible reason is that causality may have been wrongly ascribed in some cases (c.f. Nie,2001; Shklovski et al., 2004). For example, some of the results above indicate that higher useof CTs is associated with higher well-being and better relationships. Nie (2001) argues that itis more likely that people with good social connectivity make more use of communication(including online communication) than that CT use stimulates the social connectivity.The differences in findings may also be partly explained by different effects on differentgroups of people. In particular, Kraut et al. (2002)’s findings indicated that extraverts andthose with good social support may benefit from Internet use, while introverts and those withless support may find it detrimental. Other findings also support this hypothesis. For example,Lee (2009) found that participants who already had strong social relationships “were morelikely to use online communication, which in turn predicted more cohesive friendships andbetter connectedness to school”. Pornsakulvanich et al. (2008) also highlighted the impact ofindividuals' dispositions, motives and interaction behaviour on the outcomes of CT use.Another possibility is that CT use has different effects on different kinds of relationships. Forexample, Lee (2009)’s study of adolescents found a negative effect of online communicationon time with parents but not friends. It is possible that online communication strengthenssome ties and weakens others.Furthermore, the effect of communications technology is not uniform, with differenttechnologies having different effects. For example, Stephanikova et al. (2009) found anegative association between time spent on "Other Internet communication" (Instantmessaging, chat rooms and newsgroups) and life satisfaction, and a weaker negativeassociation between e-mail and satisfaction. Valkenburg and Peter (2007) found that neitherInstant messaging (IM) nor chat was directly related to well-being, but IM use did positivelypredict well-being via mediating variables. In addition, Chesley (2005) found that persistentuse of cell phones (but not computers) was associated with negative work-family spillover,higher distress and lower family satisfaction. These findings indicate that some types ofcommunications technology may strengthen relationships, while others weaken them.It is also true that even a single technology may have different effects, depending on how it isused. For example, Valkenburg et al. (2006) found that well-being was associated withwhether feedback on social networking sites was positive or negative, rather than the amountof use of the sites.In summary, there are several possible reasons for the conflicting findings about the impactof CTs. There is some evidence that some of the conflict is caused by differences inmethodologies, measures and causality attribution, as well as the differing effects of CTs ondifferent types of people. However, there are other possible factors that have not beenexplored in depth. In particular, there has been little research examining the impact of CT useon different kinds of relationships, and comparing the impact of different CTs.
1.2The current researchThe current paper seeks to inform this debate by examining two areas where there has beenlittle previous research: the impact of CT use on different kinds of relationships and theimpact of different CTs. It reports on the results from an online survey examining therelationship between ten communications technologies and people’s levels of satisfactionwith four kinds of relationships (close and extended family, and close and distant friends), aswell as overall satisfaction with life.To help provide insight into the direction of causality, participants were also asked to ratehow they felt various CTs had affected their relationships (as advocated by Nie, 2001).Although this is not definitive, it works together with the main analysis to provide a richerpicture of the situation.The survey was conducted in 2011. Changes in the use of communication technologies sincethen are discussed in Section 4.4.2. However, surveys conducted by the Oxford InternetInstitute (Dutton & Blank, 2013) indicate that overall “patterns of use have not changeddramatically” since then, and thus the results still provide useful insight into the impact ofCTs.2.2.1MethodParticipantsThe survey was administered