Already in 1996 Joseph Walther (Computer-Mediated Communication, 1996) did research on situations in which contact between individuals takes place online only. He called this type of communication: “Hyperpersonal Computer-Mediated Communication” (CMC).  One of the effects of CMC according to him was that conflicts may be “far less severe in asynchronous CMC”. Secondly, according to him CMC relieved those who are communicating from stress related to time pressure: there is time for “editing, composing”. As Walther wrote: “in asynchronous interaction one may plan, contemplate, and edit one’s comments more mindfully and deliberatively than one can in more spontaneous, simultaneous talk … Asynchronous communication allows users to control interaction to a greater extend … asynchronous communication is more inter-subjective and less egocentric than is unplanned (spontaneous) discourse.”

Although the positive aspects, as described by Walther, were known to the instructors of the second pilot of the Dynamiczna Tozsamosc project (Gdansk, Poland, 2012), they were surprised when a youngster (age group 15-18) blurted out in a discussion during the pilot that she preferred online communications over offline communications, because online “there were no barriers” whereas offline “there were too many barriers”. The instructors at first thought that they misheard the statement because, notwithstanding the potential positive aspects of asynchronous online communication, they operated with the dominant adult frame that it is online communication that comes with barriers, because of the limitations of intermediate devices (f.i. keyboards and monitors/ screens), sharply reduced signals (f.i. no nonverbal communication) and a lowered level of spontaneity. But, when asked, the girl repeated her statement verbally once more.

The instructors then asked the other youngsters present what their feelings were on the girl’s statement and they all – without exception – told the instructors that they agreed with the girl. They explained, in line with Walther, that during online asynchronous communication there is time for composing and editing – time that is lacking in real life. One student said that direct, offline contact for him was stressful because an immediate reaction was expected. Another student said that he felt that he had no control over his communication in real life, while online he did, just as Walther had written.

The instructors then asked whether the dialogue that they were having at that moment with the youngsters was stressful for them too, to which all present said yes. But, one of them declared, this stress was bearable, because the communication took place in a situation of trust. All others agreed. And, many youngsters told us that they thought that communication in real life is far more valuable than asynchronous contact online. This statement is affirmed by Dutch research by CBS (2015) stating that 96% of the youngsters in the Netherlands prefer personal meetings over meetings on social media; only 4% prefers social media contact over personal meetings. That’s why they were willing to try and overcome the barriers that they experienced offline. A first blog post on this subject was written in 2012.

From this moment on the hypothesis that online, asynchronous communication is seen by youngsters as a communication without barriers while direct, offline contact is seen as contact that is full of barriers, was tested in dialogues the instructors had in class rooms: in Poland, in the Netherland and in Greece. And everywhere the predominant answer was that youngsters (aged 11-18) agreed with the hypothesis.

Research outcomes show a slightly more nuanced image though. Ofcom (2015) research found for the UK: “There is no consensus among 12-15s regarding the statement: “I find it easier to be myself online than when I am with people face to face”; with around one-third each saying they agree (34%), disagree (35%) or are neutral/ unsure (31%).” Mediawijzer (2015) found for the Netherlands that 56% says that online contact is handier than face-to-face contact. 38% says that it is easier to talk online than offline. 15% can say more online, 13% feels less shy and 10% thinks it’s more fun to communicate online. 73% percent prefers face-to-face contact for group contact; 68% for individual contact. Stopphubbing on the other hand states: 87% of the teens would rather communicate via text than face-to-face.

To the instructors youngsters explained that they didn’t prefer online contact as such but online asynchronous contact: contact that did not require an immediate, spontaneous answer.

 

Having the preferences for asynchronous online contact in mind, four current trends take on more meaning:

  • Over the last five to ten years youngsters have started to prefer texting over talking when communicating with their mobile phones. This is for instance noted in the 2011 PewResearchCentre report Americans and text messaging: “Heavy text users are much more likely to prefer texting to talking. Some 55% of those who exchange more than 50 messages a day say they would rather get a text than a voice call. Young adults are the most avid texters by a wide margin. Cell owners between the ages of 18 and 24 exchange an average of 109.5 messages on a normal day”. Time wrote in 2012: “The telephone call is a dying institution. The number of text messages sent monthly in the U.S. exploded from 14 billion in 2000 to 188 billion in 2010, according to a Pew Institute survey, and the trend shows no signs of abating. Not all of that growth has come out of the hide of old-fashioned phoning, but it is clearly taking a bite — particularly among the young.” And the Huffington Post claimed in 2012: “A British study conducted by independent media regulator Ofcomfound that among 16- to 24-year-olds, phone calls are being superseded by texts or other e-messages. Per the research, 96 percent use some form of text-based communication – either though social networks (73 percent) or through traditional texting (90 percent) – on a daily basis. … And new research from Pew finds similar trends among teens. As NBC News explains, 63 percent of teens text every day, compared to only 39 percent making or taking cell phone calls daily. … Taken together, these studies appear to foreshadow a time in the not-so-distant future when text-based messages are the norm and phone calls are thought of as a quaint, nonessential way to get in touch.” The Atlantic found in 2014 that 87% of high schoolers texts every day against 34% making a phone call. In the UK the situation seems to be, as Ofcom research shows: “In 2015 mobile users aged 8-11 made an average of nine calls and 41 text-based messages, and 12-15s made an average of 22 calls and 135 text-based messages.” These numbers concern average weekly use. Only in the Netherlands (Mediawijsheid, 2015) calling still is almost as popular as sending messages.
  • One of the major motivations for texting is avoiding real-life contact. The PewResearchCentre report S. Smartphone Use in 2015, states: “47% of young smartphone owners used their phone to avoid interacting with the people around them at least once during the study period, roughly three times the proportion of older smartphone owners who did so.”
  • Phubbing: The act of snubbing someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying attention. (Source: Stopphubbing)
  • According to Ofcom research (2015) youngsters think that people behave differently online than offline: “Seven in ten (72%) agree: “I think most people behave in a different way online to when they talk to people face to face”; with close to one in ten disagreeing (8%), and the remainder (19%) neutral or unsure.” The AAP (American Academy of Pedriatics) disagrees with this assessment though in their media guidelines for youngsters: “Media is just another environment. Children do the same things they have always done, only virtually.”

 

While the youngsters in the project predominantly agreed with Walther’s statements that asynchronous online contact relieves individuals from stress and allows them to control communication to a greater extend, none agreed with his statements that conflicts are less severe while communicating in this way or that communication is more inter-subjective and less egocentric.

The reactions to yet another aspect of CMC that Walter mentions, were mixed. Walther stated after his research that the effect of CMC was not limited to communication. According to him it also had an impact on self-presentation. Walther wrote: “CMC provides, in some cases, opportunities for selective self-presentation, idealization and reciprocation. This renders hyperpersonal communication, forms of interaction that exceed what we may accomplish FtF [face-to-face], in terms of our impression-generation and relational goals.”

This is still a popular line of thought among researchers. Sherry Turkle (Alone together, 2011) for instance strongly propagates the view that youngsters hide behind their beautiful online masks. Researcher Bibi van den Berg (in the Dynamic Identity project, 2012-2015) also stresses that youngsters use their profiles predominantly to show off a better life than they actually have. Howard Gardner & Katie Davies (The app generation, 2013) claim that in their research they have gathered “considerable evidence that youth take care to present a socially desirable, polished self online.” Research (Pew, 2012) in the USA in addition showed that on Facebook “[p]osts that center on ourselves, our achievements, and our sometimes self-righteous political views can have a positive influence on the brain.”

Youngsters in the workshops, on the other hand, are not so sure. While many admit that they use their profile often to portray their lives as more interesting than it actually is, none of them sees this as a goal in itself. For them it is a regular part of online communication just as showing silly pictures is and engaging in jokes is.