Preferring to communicate via technology is associated with worse emotional functioning

People who prefer to use an electronic device to communicate with tend to have more problems with emotion regulation, according to new exploratory research published in the journal Psychological Reports.

“The pervasive and growing use of social media and mobile devices has transformed how we communicate on a daily basis, including how we experience, express, and manage our emotions,” said Sarah Myruski, the lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at Hunter College of the City University of New York and New York University Langone School of Medicine.

“Researches use the term ‘computer-mediated communication’ or CMC to refer to any type of communication via technology. There are still many open questions about the negative social-emotional impact of CMC. Some researchers have suggested that CMC use can lead to social isolation and depression, while others have found that CMC can bolster well-being by helping people stay connected to friends and family.”

“Also, there are a lot of differences in how and why people use CMC. Some people use CMC to vent about their frustrations, or share a success, or just to chat. Also sometimes social media is used passively, with no active communication occurring at all,” said Myruski, a member of Tracy Dennis-Tiwary’s Emotion Regulation Lab.

“This study examines links among individual differences in CMC use, emotional sensitivity, and social-emotional vulnerabilities like problems regulating emotions.”

The researchers surveyed 123 adults regarding their communication preferences, emotional well-being, emotional dysregulation, depressive symptoms, anxiety, and personality. The researchers also tested the participants’ ability to detect emotional facial expressions.

Myruski and her colleagues found that those who preferred CMC over face-to-face communication tended to display more sensitivity to facial expressions and show more signs of emotional dysregulation.

The researchers then examined a subset of 27 participants who were asked to browse Facebook for about 15 minutes. After browsing, the participants completed a brief questionnaire to categorize the types of activities they engaged in.

Engaging in socially active Facebook activities such as sending messages to a friend was associated with greater emotional well-being, while passively browsing Facebook was associated with greater emotion regulation difficulties.

“We had three major findings. First, a preference for CMC to communicate both positive emotions and distress, was associated with more problems with emotion regulation,” Myruski told PsyPost.

“Second, participants who preferred to use CMC versus face-to-face interactions showed greater emotional sensitivity, as measured by faster and more accurate detection of emotions in faces during a computer task.

“Third, we found that people who used Facebook to actively communicate reported greater emotional well-being, while the opposite pattern was found for those who passively browsed,” Myruski said.

The study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“The major caveat for this study is that it is correlational. No causational inferences should be made based on these results, but instead this study should be considered an exploratory initial step toward identifying patterns of links between CMC, emotion detection, and emotional well-being, and future more stringent hypothesis-driven work will help clarify these patterns,” Myruski explained.

“One possible interpretation of the patterns of associations we found is that people who are highly emotionally sensitive and/or struggle to manage their emotions in face to face contexts may prefer to turn to CMC because it allows them to engage with others without the immediate burden of processing the emotions of others. However, only future experimental studies can determine the direction of causality.”

Despite the limitations, the findings provide a foundation for future research.

“People should be mindful of how they are using social media and technology to communicate, particularly when expressing or managing emotions,” Myruski added. “Also, the type of activities engaged in via social media seems to matter. That is, active communication versus passive browsing via CMC may serve to bolster emotional well-being, and vice versa.”

The study, “Through a Screen Darkly: Use of Computer-Mediated Communication Predicts Emotional Functioning“, was authored by Sarah Myruski, Jean M. Quintero, Samantha Denefrio, and Tracy A. Dennis-Tiwary.