Unpopular opinion: How digital communication strengthens our relationships
It is Monday morning, September 13th 2021 when I am on the Madrid Metro on my way to university. I am taking a quick break from reading my book. Just to look around me. What I am seeing surprises me while it really shouldn’t. Everyone is on their phone, staring, typing, no matter their age.
As I continue with my day, I realize that the same picture is being shown in pretty much every aspect of my life: In university, while walking around downtown, when hanging out at home with my roommates or even when being on the road. While a phone can be a waste of time, or even dangerous, for communication nowadays it is essential.
It is 221. We are living in a globalized and digitalized world, which was driven forward by the pandemic we are currently facing. 4.80 billion people around the world are making use of the internet. This equates to almost 61% of the world’s total population! A vast majority of that, namely 92.1 % are utilizing their mobile devices for this purpose (Datareportal, n.d.). Regarding social media, the number of users has increased by 57% during the pandemic, equalling 4.48 billion users worldwide (Kemp, 2021). These facts and figures visualize how interconnected the entire world has become.
Disadvantages of digital communication
Nevertheless, there is a dark side to every story. Digital communication is frowned upon by many. First and foremost, based on the danger of miscommunication.
Miscommunication is a major disadvantage of digital communication. One of the most important aspects of communication is intention. Being able to convey your intention, and being able to perceive the intent of someone else is highly important when it comes to communicating with others.
But this isn’t exactly easy to do without subtle indicators such as facial expression, gestures and the tone of voice we can exhibit and interpret in person.
“Intent is very hard to convey except face-to-face, where it’s easy and effortless. We’ve evolved for millennia to be able to understand each other’s intent quickly and effectively face-to-face. And so think of that as a different kind of efficiency” (Beard, Nickisch, 2018).
I am sure everyone has been in a similar situation before: You were having a casual conversation with a friend on WhatsApp just until you receive this one message that makes you doubt: ‘Did I say anything wrong?’ ‘Is she mad at me now?’ Only because the other person might not have added an emoticon, or texted in a rush without exclamation points and so on. This shows that when we’re suddenly unable to express and interpret intent. We’re left with a less effective form of communication, oftentimes leading to miscommunication.
Feeling of disconnection
Studies suggest that scrolling through social media can cause social isolation (Saxbe Ph.D., 2018). I am certain that you have experienced this, or a similar situation before: You were home alone, scrolling through Instagram. You see your friends travelling, partying, possibly having fun together and you feel so far away, so excluded. It might make you feel bad about not being there with them, or bad about simply sitting around at home. Along with that, there have been reported increase symptoms of anxiety and depression (Saxbe Ph.D., 2018). This makes one aspect evident: A feeling of disconnection isn’t just a common side effect of social media usage, but is also easily triggered.
Advantages of digital communication
While those disadvantages cannot be disregarded, digital communication is vital these days. The outbreak of the pandemic has made it very clear how important it is to be able to communicate digitally with people around the world, no matter where you are, no matter what time it is.
For me personally, as someone who is continuously moving around, it is often the only way to communicate with friends and family. Let me shed some light on my background: I was born in Germany. With 18 years I decided it is time to move on, across the ocean to the US. After two years I had enough of that American lifestyle and moved — again- across the ocean to the Netherlands. Two years after, I moved back to the US, then back to the Netherlands. Currently, I am living in Madrid. So, as you can see, digital communication is for me the only way to stay connected to those people I met along the way, and the family I’ve got back home.
Cost- and time effective
Anyone who ever had to commute to the office on a daily basis will agree with this one in the blink of an eye. Thanks to digital communication, the hour-long commute is a blast from the past. Besides, travel costs have decreased immensely, since flight- or train tickets are not necessary any longer. Therefore, one’s flexibility is increased extremely.
Increased productivity & efficiency
This heavily relates to the preceding arguments. Thanks to the energy that can be saved by not having to commute or spend money on the commute, there is more energy left for the work sessions or meetings. Additionally, there are less distractions by your colleagues in the office. A big contributor is the time that can be saved from the commute. This can instead be used to either sleep more, practice hobbies or whatever your heart desires.
Increased emotional connection
Last but not least, my personal favorite: Digital communication can increase the emotional connection between us. Without digital communication, in many cases there would be no communication at all. While it is certainly affecting me that I do not get to see my best friends and family continuously — perks of being a travel bee — I feel so blessed to still be able to talk to them. And this is the greatest part, instead of just talking, we can: Go on walks together, workout together, send each other pictures, videos and memes, meaning I can make my friends laugh even when I am not with them. Furthermore, we can watch movies together, cook together etc. I think you got the gist of this. Digital communication allows, increases or even initiates human relationships.
As I have shown, there certainly are downsides of digital communication that cannot be disregarded. Since it is such a vital aspect of our lives now. However, just as there are rules for every other part of our lives, we should develop rules when it comes to digital communication. Nevertheless, this was a love letter to this whole concept of digital communication, since it allows me to still be close to my people who are so far away.