Many of us will automatically reach out to our friends through texts and posts instead of getting together in person. But do all modes of communication provide an equal amount of emotional support?

A collection of studies presented at a psychology convention suggests texting and using social media have psychological benefits, yet they pale in comparison to what we receive from good, old-fashioned human contact.

Relationships Now

Texting and posting on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have become an essential way many of us communicate and relate. In fact, some surveys find teens and young adults text and use social media more than they interact face-to-face. Researchers in the United States and Canada set out to understand the possible benefits and costs of digital communication and learn the impact on our relationships as well as our emotional health.

Dr. Susan Holtzman, a psychologist at University of British Columbia, led one study involving 64 young female participants. After the women performed a stressful task, the researchers randomly assigned the participants to three groups: One group received no emotional support; another received texting support from a close friend; and the final group received face-to-face support from a friend. Testing the young women, who also rated their experiences, the research team collected the data and analyzed the results. What did they find?

Compared to texting, in-person support of a friend was significantly better at creating a positive mood, they say, though, the participants rated the two support systems as equal.

Dr. Patricia Greenfield, a psychologist at UCLA, contributed to another study of nonverbal emotional recognition. Here, 51 preteens spent five days at an overnight nature camp where television, computers, and mobile phones were banished. Another group of students remained at school and continued as usual, using whatever media they wanted as they wished. After testing the two groups, the researchers say one group far exceeded the other.

Comparatively, those who spent five days away from technology showed "significant improvement" in recognizing nonverbal emotional cues, the researchers said.

Both teams warn their studies are small and inconclusive. Their results also cannot be generalized to other age groups, they say. No matter, the findings in both cases are evocative; taken to the limit, these studies suggest some people could have "enough" friends while still feeling emotionally impoverished.

While digital interactions can and do have a positive impact on mood, bonding, self-esteem, and sense of belonging, Holtzman says the "benefits of text messaging and social media often fail to match those of in-person social interactions." This is especially true for anyone who is more vulnerable to social media’s negative effects, such as those who are disliked or who don’t fit in.

In the end, texting and posting cannot be considered either "good" or "bad" for your health. It's how — and when — we use digital communication that makes all the difference in the world.

Source: Holtzman S, Turcotte K, Little J, Lis D. Text messaging as a form of emotional support among adults. Society for Personality and Social Psychology 17th Annual Convention. 2016.