So Texting Can Actually Boost Your Self-Esteem

We often hear about how the internet is bumming us out, but it's not all bad.

Aug 6 2014, 4:50pm

Image: Garry Knight/Flickr

We often hear about how the internet is bumming us out, but it's not all bad: Recent research suggests that, by making us more candid, chatting online is pulling us closer to our family and friends.

Sometimes people don't feel very confident, and sometimes people feel alone, or sad, or all three at once. These problems are old, and the internet is relatively new, but that doesn't mean it's without ill effects. Regularly, reports roll in that find too much internet use might make us depressed, too much Twitter will cause your divorce, and Facebook can make us lonely.

Bad health effects will always get good press, but there is also plenty of research on the positive influence the internet and its social platforms can have on our well being. Mental health is complex, and the question of how we're affected by our time online is not yet settled.

A new study published this week in the journal Computers in Human Behavior found that computer-based communication—including messaging, email, and Facebook—may positively influence self-esteem more than a telephone call or talking in person.

It turns out we don't just over-share with strangers on computers: we share more with people close to us, and that can be beneficial.

Many complaints about new technology are as old as the letter or the telegraph

Previous studies on self-esteem and the internet have focused on frequency and duration of use, with mixed results. Dr. Amy Gonzales, an assistant professor at Indiana University Bloomington who has published on the positive effects of Facebook on self-esteem, designed her latest study to emphasize the meaningfulness of social interaction conducted on computers.

"Researchers and everyday people alike often have the impression that computer mediated communication is somehow less valuable for social connection than face-to-face communication," she said. "Yet many complaints about new technology are as old as the letter or the telegraph, suggesting that they may not hold water."

Participants in the study were given a 1997 model Palm Pilot that rang 6-10 times every day with a prompt to complete a short survey about their two most recent social interactions. They also had to score the meaningfulness of the interaction in five laconic categories: intimacy, I shared, they shared, quality, satisfaction.

(Because you're certainly wondering, the PDAs were chosen because they can collect data without connecting to any other study-compromising apps, as a smartphone would. In the paper, Gonzales explains that "The Palm Pilot was chosen as a data collection tool because it time-stamped each survey without enabling new forms of digital communication.")

The score ensured that meaningful interactions, those likely to affect self-esteem, were separated from day-to-day interactions: a Facebook chat with a close friend wouldn't be compared with an email to customer service.

"I wanted to explore this issue by following a handful of people over a few days to see how meaningful their conversations were in different media, and how those conversations affected self-esteem," Gonzales said.

After six days of recording, the PDAs were returned for data collection. The study found that compared with meaningful face-to-face conversation and phone calls, text based communication on cell phones, email, or Facebook had a larger positive effect on self-esteem.

Sharing is vital to healthy relationships, the kind that boost self-esteem, and nothing prompts sharing like the internet. Some studies have pointed to the reduced social pressure and increased anonymity afforded by computers as driving this phenomenon. Others suggest that the absence of in-person social cues can cause people to interpret computer-based messages as more intimate, driving their own disclosure.

The good news is that while much of this disclosure ends up in YouTube comments, it also makes its way into personal conversations, where it can help people build the kind of healthy relationships that sustain them.

"At minimum, these findings indicate that digital technology is not an impoverished substitute for meaningful face to face conversation," writes Gonzales in the study.

"Instead these data suggest that digital, text-based technologies may be one of the best ways to reap the psychological benefits of interpersonal communication for self-esteem," she continues.

These benefits are also more widely distributed than ever. The overwhelming majority of the world's population is subscribed to a mobile number and able to access SMS messaging.

The study notes that we still do most of our communication in person: 60 percent of all interactions occurred face to face, which Gonzales says is a similar number to studies conducted a decade ago. But the tendency to share more personal information through messaging suggests the 20 percent of talking that occurs on computers can be extremely valuable in building and maintaining relationships.

So while spending an entire day tinkering with your Facebook profile or obsessively refreshing your Gmail is probably won't make you feel good, keep the chat window open. It could be a boon for your self-esteem.