Patterns of multi-channel communication
among older teens
Zuerich, June 2007
Based on a study of 1440 Swiss teenagers in 2003, highly complementary (instead of substitutive) relationships are found between the usage of various technical communication media as well as between media usage and face-to-face interactions. Males seem particularly prone to use all media channels in a complementary fashion. Among both genders, there is a particularly strong complementarity between the landline and the mobile phone. When partners meet rarely, the communicate more by written than by oral media, particularly by SMS. By comparing older acquaintances with more recently created interpersonal relationships, it is found that the mix of media channels doesn't change significantly over time, except that the exchange of Short Text Messages declines. While the closeness of a relationship seems to be positively affected by the frequency of meetings and fixed phone calls, mobile contacts and Emails don't seem to make any consistent contribution.
"We often start with a text,
Dictum of an interview respondent, cited in Fox 2004
The ever widening spectrum of technical communication media calls for highly complex conceptual and theoretical frameworks, because substitutive as well as complementary relationships between the different media have to be considered. The former are well illustrated by our daily habit to call even near neighbours by phone than knocking at their door, or by replacing snail mail letters increasingly with Email messages or SMS. Similarly, Squires has found in her study about college students that all technically mediated exchanges were low among people who met several times a day, while cell phone usage was highest among people with moderate offline contacts ("several times a week") and Email was almost exclusively used for partners met rarely face-to-face (a few times per month) (Squires 2004).
However, while new media may replace older ones in certain aspects, they predominantly complement them by offering new potentialities of interaction and togetherness as well as by adding new ways to realize and experience interpersonal relationships, group membership and organizational cooperation. For instance, research has shown that the rise of technically mediated communication channels has not diminished the strong need of adolescents for gathering physically and for keeping in contact by offline communication (Grinter and Eldridge 2003; Lenhart/Madden/Hitlin 2005). As a consequence, modern sociology faces the challenge that human relationships have nowadays to be understood and analyzed as complex multimedia processes combining primary face-to-face meetings with intermittent communication by fixed phone, mobile phone as well as various text, image and video messages by Email, SMS or Instant Messaging channels. (Squires 2004).
Thus, Rettie (2003) has come to the conclusion that
Apart from substituting or supplementing each other, it may well be that the new media have enriched the total sphere of interindividual exchanges because each mode constitutes a distinct "new way to experience communication" (Squires 2004).
In a study on college students, more than 61% of the respondents agreed with the statement that “I get different aspects of people’s personalities depending on whether I am interacting with them through email, IM, or phone” (Squires 2004). This would indicate that media diversification is a way to enrich interpersonal relationships by disclosing reciprocally a broader range of personal traits and responses and by cultivating a more diversified social exchange: experiencing the partner as somebody who not only talks, but also writes texts, produces his own fotographs and videos, surprises with a call at night or early morning, who contacts me spontaneously from schoolrooms, workplaces, entertainment localities and various other circumstances etc. The more all these media are at hand for everybody 24 hours a day, the less their usage is conditioned by any physical constraints, but increasingly determined by personal decisions, social norms or cultural patterns.
We may hypothesize that such subjective factors are strongest in the initial phases of media adoption where collective normative standards and cultural patterns have not yet been established.
2. Exploring the factors of individual and collective media choice
The growing diversity of alternative communication media calls for theories that can explain the use of different media on different occasions, and the mix of media used for interacting with specific individuals in the context of particular relationships and circumstances. Clark and Brennan (1990) identify eight factors that constrain media choice: co-presence, visibility, audibility, co-temporality, simultaneity, sequentiality, reviewability and revisability. Seen in this perspective, physical gatherings stand out by the highest degrees of social presence with the visibility and audibility as well as with the highest level of simultaneity: so that intensive feedback is possible without any delays, costs or efforts. Computer-mediated communication (CMC), on the other hand, is particularly low in social presence (Rice and Love, 1987) and lean in media richness (Walther, 1992).
It has been remarked that males particularly rely on face to face gatherings because they make more use of nonverbal levels of communication (Mitrea 2006):
Due to the richness of vocal
cues as well as to the immediacy of feedback, phone calls provide more
social presence and connectedness than all the text based modes of
technically mediated communication (Squires 2004). Therefore, it is
rated higher for functions of socializing than Email or other
Internet-mediated channels (Dimmick 2000).
Audio calls of all sorts are more private and exclusive because in contrast to all textual media (IM, SMS and Email), their content cannot be forwarded to other receivers.
In comparison to the mobile, the fixed phone is much more used for lengthy talks driven by an intrinsic motivation to socialize and to experience personal nearness (Mitrea 2006: 107). In this respect, it is a rather close substitute for face-to-face meetings for two different reasons: (1) because landline talks have become rather cheap or even free, and (2) because calls tend to take place in quite private hours where the participants are disposed for longer conversations: in contrast to mobile calls which often intrude into busy situations. This closeness is empirically demonstrated by the finding that the fix phone is much preferred when bad news has to be transmitted: because there is enough opportunity for elaborate "consolations" and for discussing how to cope with the consequences (Mitrea 2006: 108). Thus, the fixed phone is heavily used for non-ritualized personal conversations: e. g. for talking about personal problems and experiences and for disclosing subjective feelings and thoughts (Mitrea 2006: 108).
While Email and SMS messages
can be sent and received at any hour and cell phone calls when partners
are at any place or on the move, landline phone calls are only
when the receiver is at home. Thus, their usage is restricted by the
mere fact that most people are at home only during specific times: so
that phone activity tends to concentrate on early evenings or weekend
days (Lacohee/Anderson 2001: 12). Additional restrictions result from
the fact that calls are experienced as "intrusive" whenever receivers
are absorbed by concentrated activities or when they prefer to rest or
sleep - so that they may not even be answered (Lacohee/Anderson 2001:
Empirical research on phone usage patterns has mainly focused on gender-related differences. In their extensive study, Lacohee and Anderson found that both men and women reported having some of their longest calls with people they saw rarely, but women were more likely than men to also have long chats over the telephone with people they saw regularly, even on a daily basis. Both men and women were also found to make more frequent short calls to those people they saw on regularly, especially for fixing arrangements (Lacohee/Anderson 2001). Local friends or relatives are phoned more frequently than friends or relatives living far away (Lacohee/Anderson 2001). On the other hand, there was a clear disparity between men and women’s view of what the telephone should be used for. Men claimed that it is primarily a tool for checking and making arrangements while women reported that it is vital to the maintenance of their social relations. (Lacohee/Anderson 2001).
More females than males also reported a “proactive” (instead of “reactive”) behavioural style, and they were more likely than males to have intensive phone contacts with family members and relatives (Lacohee/Anderson 2001). This corresponds to Di Leonardos observation reports that “the work of kinship” is carried out to a disproportional degree by women (Di Leonardo 1987), as well as to Sawhney’s and Gomez’ ethnographic finding that wives usually act as real “information hubs” by maintaining two-way relationships to all other family members (Sawhney/Gomez 2000).
In contrast to the Internet that has produced a still remarkable "Digital Divide", the cell phone is a more egalitarian technology adopted also by the lower strata. In fact, some studies have even found that the most active "pioneers" stem from lower educational levels.
It was found that heavy
usage of mobile phones correlates inversely with the level of education
(Mitrea 2006: 86). However, the lower the level of education, the
shorter the length of conversation (Mitrea 2006: 105). Due to their rather high
time-related costs , mobile talks tend to be restricted to short
exchanges which don't require intensive feed and comprehensive
explanation. At least in this respect, there is almost no overlap with
face to face meetings which are heavily used for telling long stories
and engaging in complex, open ended discussion (Mitrea 2006: 104).
On the one hand mobile audio
calls are highly instrumental for initiating, coordinating and realizing
face to face meetings. For instance, individuals can fix meeting dates
and places when on the move, and they can rearrange times and places in
reaction to unforseen short-term changes. (Larsen/Urry/Axhausen 2005). Thus mobile phones help to
realize many meetings under adverse circumstances of a highly mobile,
complex and unpredictable life. (Mitrea 2006: 103). On the other hand, mobiles
are heavily used just “to keep in touch”: to strengthen existing social
bonds by small intermediary contacts with which partners signal mutually
that the relationship is still “alive and well”. As an "antidote to
alienation" (Fox 2004): the cell phone compensates for the fragmentation
of social life caused by frequent geographic mobility:
The same study also showed
that there were some significant sex differences in 'gossip partners',
with men being more likely than women to talk with work colleagues and
women more likely than men to gossip mainly with family members (Fox
Short text messages (SMS)
Similar to mobile audio calls, SMS are highly complementary to face-to-face meetings because they are much used to manage relationships, initiate invitations and fix the time and place of gatherings (Döring 2002). Usually, such coordinations and adjustments take place among individuals who know each other well (Potts 2004). In addition, SMS are also symbiotic with audio calls (by fixed or mobile phone). Particularly for females,
Because they are so non-intrusive, SMS extend the sphere of interpersonal communication to new highly informal contacts that would not take place by audio calls: e. g. by sending out a "goodnight kiss" just for expressing social nearness, not for expecting any reciprocating action. (Grinter and Eldridge 2001).
Given their low costs, SMS are useful for very basic and very spontaneous communicative exchanges as they had earlier only occurred "free of cost" as a concomitant of face-to-face meetings.
As they are quite cheap, they are much used by younger teens who have to keep their phone bills low, especially by incumbents of lower social classes (Fox 2004). And as they can be manufactured, sent and retrieved quite discretely, they are much used during school or at work places where no audio calls can be sent out or answered. Because they usually cannot be read by any bystanders, SMS offer much more privacy than audio calls which can drop into completely unpredictable environments where unwelcome third parties may be present (Ling/Yttri 1999; Geser 2003). Some research suggests that the use of text messaging may be perceived as a form of socially acceptable gift (Taylor & Harper, 2003). This corroborates the hypothesis that text messaging is generally utilized to strengthen pre-existing relationships by just providing a new channel for its continuous confirmative expression (Bryant/Sanders-Jackson/Smallwood 2006).
In comparison to Email, they
lend itself better to ongoing communication because senders can be
certain that they are received and answered rather soon (usually within
an hour) They are "semi-synchronous”: occupying and intermediate
position between IM and Email.In addition, they are more
private because they can less easily sent to masses of recipients.
Such functional characteristics have also been used to explain why teens make so heavy use of text message communication, while shifting to audio calls when they reach about the age of twenty (Ling 2001: 10). This change can be explained by the assumption that SMS is more adequate for life stages characterized by high personal insecurity and highly problematic social relations: because it helps to keep distance and to leave open a ready exit option whenever contacts are not reciprocated.
is the most polyvalent
channel of communication because it bridges the spheres of work and
leisure, it is used for expressive and instrumental purposes alike, and
for bilateral as well as for multilateral communication. As an
asynchronous medium with slow and unreliable feedback, it does not lend
itself to intensive reciprocity. Consequently, Email ranks
very low in terms of connectedness and sociability - so that individuals
who want to experience social belongingness usually prefer SMS or the
phone. Thus, research indicates that the impact of Internet
communication on individual well-being is low or inexistent (Baym et.
al. 2004), and Schiano et al. (2002) found that teenagers mainly use
email for non-personal communication. Therefore, frequent email
exchange does not seem to contribute much to the closeness and intimacy
of a relationship (Cummings et. al. 2002), and it cannot compete with
the phone as a medium for sharing good or bad news (Randall 2002).
3. Research Questions and Research Design
In the following, we want to
explore empirically the interdependencies of different communication channels within
informal interpersonal relationships among older teens.
The empirical results
reported below are based on a survey carried through in September and
December 2003 at several vocational schools in Zurich (Switzerland)
comprising young apprentices (mostly between 17-21 years old) in the
field of construction, office administration as well as fashion and
design. Based on the teacher's permission, the standardized
questionnaire was applied during classes, so that a very high return
rate (of more than 95%) could be achieved. On the average, it took
students a mean of 30 minutes of class time to complete the
questionnaire. As an incentive to answer the questions thoroughly,
students who took part in the survey could choose to have their names
drawn for a prize.
The highly multicultural demographic structure of Switzerland today was mirrored in the fact that more than 30% of all respondents (421) were originating from a foreign country.
Table 1: Frequency distribution of respondents: according to gender and age
In the questionnaire, informants had to provide more detailed information about the three persons with which they had the most intensive contacts by mobile phone. Apart from their gender and kind of relationship (kinship, friend, partner), they had to indicate the total frequencies of mutual communicative exchanges: mobile calls, mobile text messages (SMS), fixed phone calls, email messages and physical meetings. In addition, it was asked how "close" they subjectively felt to these partners, and how long the relationship was already in existence.
Who is preferably included
into this innermost communicative circle? Table 2 shows that there are
two significant divergences between the two genders:
This accords well with the assumption that young females tend to maintain closer relationships to family members, and that mothers are more likely than fathers to have intensive communication with their (female and male) kids.
Table 2: Frequency distribution of the three persons most frequently contacted by cell phone calls and SMS: according to gender and type of social relationship (percentage values and total frequencies)
4. Total amount of communicative relations
Looking at the total frequency of cell phone contacts (initiated by either side), it is evident that it spreads over an astonishingly broad range. Even with the most contacted person A, only about half of all informants exchange at least one call per day, while most of the others have only 1-2 contacts per week - the same intensity as maintained with B and C (Figure 1). High economic costs may explain why only very small minorities maintain extremely intensive communications (with 5 or more audio calls each single day).
SMS traffic is different insofar as it somewhat more focused on one person (A) with whom at least two messages are daily exchanged in about 50% (and even five or more in 25%) of all cases (Figure 2).
Figures 3 and 4 show the average frequencies of communicative exchanges female and male respondents realize on all channels with their three core partners.
From these graphics, at least the following five conclusions can be drawn:
5. Relationships between the Five Channels: Intercorrelations and Factor Structures
As suggested by Figure 3 and 4, the intercorrelations between the absolute contact frequencies are predominantly positive or near zero, while negative relationships are conspicuously lacking (Table 3).
factorial structures presented in Table 4 are apt to summarize and
accentuate these gender-related differences. First of all, it is evident
that the communicative behaviour of males is governed more by two
dominating factors (absorbing together more than 52% of the whole
variance), while the behaviour of females is less structured (as the two
min factors extracted explain only 39%).
2. Factor Score Matrix (Orthogonal Varimax Rotation)
(First line: Person A; second line: Person B; third line: person C)
* p < .05; ** p < .01
Factor analysis reveals that in the case of both genders, shares of fixed phone, mobile and Email usage are three highly independent dimensions of communication, while meetings and SMS appear (conforming to our expectations) as polar opposites, but rather unrelated to everything else (Table 6).
1. Eigenvalues and explained variance of the factors
2. Factor Score Matrix (Orthogonal Varimax Rotation)
6. On the Relationship between Mobile Calls and Fixed Phone Calls
All our findings refute the common sense assumption that the mobile leads to a demise of the traditional landline phone. To the contrary, it can be shown that the usage intensity of these two channels covary positively, even when percentages values instead of absolute frequencies are considered (Table 3 /Table 5). More detailed analyses demonstrate that the strength of this covariance depends on the gender composition of the interactive partners. It is highest when communication takes place between male and female, and it is weakest in contacts among males (Table 7). Only in heterosexual pairs, the relationship remains significantly positive when percentage shares (instead of absolute frequencies) are correlated.
* p < .05 ** p < .01
1) Percentage of the sum total of yearly meetings, fixed phone calls, cell phone calls, SMS and Emails with the respective person.
7. Relationships between Physical Meetings and Technically Mediated Communications
As reported in Table 3, the
usage of all technical channels is relatively weakly related to the
frequency of face-to-face encounters, especially in the case of females.
Nevertheless, the mix of media is rather different for partners rarely
seen and for individuals met once or even several times a day (like
family members or close colleagues in school or at work). When meetings
are rare, a very large percentage of all communications take place as
Short Text Messages, while all other channels lag drastically behind
(Figure 5a to 5c). The only exception is person C where Email is used
with similar intensity (Figure 5c). In the case of all three partners,
Email contacts gain considerable weight when meeting frequencies are
intermediate (up to about two times weekly), while they are surpassed by
oral mobile calls whenever the partner is physically met on a daily
Overall, it seems that the two mobile channels have the most tight complementary relationship to physical meetings. As they represent the most informal communication channels available anytime and anywhere, they are evidently more disposed than Email or the fixed phone to carry on talks initiated in meetings or to arrange future encounters.
Respective statistical analyses show that meeting frequency and technically mediated communications are similarly related in both genders, with one significant exception: the relationship between mobile calls and SMS. Here, we find that when rarely meeting partners are a heterosexual pair, they exchange far more SMS than audio calls, while the two channels are far more equilibrated among two women - and even more among two males. However, there is a general tendency that communication shifts from written to oral channels when meeting frequency increases (Figure 6).
8. Older and more recent acquaintances
We may hypothesize that high level communication on all channels is more typical for recently formed relationships, because processes of mutual disclosure and of exploring common ideas and activities are still intensively going on. With increasing time and consolidation, we may well see a decline in mutual exchanges as well as a shift toward less informal spontaneous channels (e. g. the traditional landline phone).
The results conform only partially with these expectations. In fact, the exchange of short text messages is most intensive among newly acquainted partners and loses constantly ground in more mature relations. However, the usage of all other channels is not consistently correlated with duration. Person B receives even most oral contacts (by mobile and landline) when acquaintanceship extends over more than 10 years (= e. g. in the case of family members). Interestingly, Email exchanges are related in a curvilinear fashion: achieving their maximum in relationships that have formed 1-2 years ago. (Figure 7a to 7c). While the fixed phone - as expected - keeps its position during time, it is also evident that the mobile phone has successfully penetrated older relationships that have existed long before cell phone sets have come into existence.
The correlation between SMS use and length of relationship is heavily mediated by the gender of interacting partners. As exemplified by person B, heterosexual pairs keep much longer to a high intensity of text exchanges than same-gendered partners, especially males (Figure 8).
Looking at the full intercorrelation matrix, it is evident that the relationships among the five channels is not affected much during time. However, more recently formed interpersonal bonds are characterized by tighter co variations between meetings on the one hand and mobile calls and Email messages on the other - while fixed phone calls and SMS remain unaffected (Table 8). This accords well with the assumption that nascent human relationships are often diffuse in the sense of stretching over several communicative levels at the same time, while older relationships may be more specialized - so that they can be more easily kept within one channel without affecting others. In other words: within given relationships. complementary relations between different channels tend to diminish rather than to increase.
* p < .05; ** p < .01
9. Impact on the closeness of relationship
While the five communication
modes fulfil highly different functions because of their divergences in
bandwidth, richness, interactivity, personal presence and various other
attributes, many research studies have shown that they can all
contribute to making interpersonal relationships closer, more intimate
and emotional. As the respondents had to
characterize the relationship to partners A, B, and C on a scale of
"personal closeness" ranging from 1 to 10, we can use linear
multivariate regression analysis for finding out whether and to what
degree the five communicative channels add to this closeness under
various intervening conditions.
In a more detailed analysis, it is found that the positive effects of fixed phone contacts emerge only when the number of yearly meetings is rather low, while they vanish completely in cases where partners meet on a day to day basis (Table 10). This result indicates strongly that fixed phone communication may be a substitute for producing (or maintaining) personal closeness under conditions where opportunities for face-to-face contacts are restricted.
* p < .05 ** p < .01
Today, almost all closer interpersonal relationships have to be analyzed as hybrid multimedia processes that combine primary face-to-face gatherings with phone calls, text and image transmissions. Instant Messaging or video streaming sessions and other digitalized communications. On a daily - and sometimes even an hourly - basis, we make decisions about what channels to use in which specific situation for satisfying what kind of communicative need - usually without reflecting rationally about the functions and disfunctions of the various media we have at hand.
Our common sense views are strongly determined by ideas of media substitution: who still sends mailed letters when writings can be transmitted speedier by Email or SMS? And why invest travel time for appointments when even highly complex problems can be discussed on the phone? Such considerations are certainly adequate when the task is just to fix an agreement or to transmit a specific amount of information, as it is the case in many formalized bureaucratic or professional settings. In informal interpersonal relationships, however, such "zero-sum models" of communication are fatally flawed, because they ignore that every communication on one level can beget additional communicative needs that reinforce the use of other channels. For instance, a short SMS "I've got the job" may well give rise to lengthy evening talks on the landline phone for discussing the new life perspectives implied by this lucky event; and the mere availability of the mobile phone may motivate to arrange additional meetings that would not occur if appointments had to be made by clumsier traditional channels.
The results of our Swiss teenager study support the contention that the new digital media contribute to a self-escalating dynamics of bilateral relationships: so that ever higher communicative intensities on all available channels are achieved.
While such findings evidently rule out theoretical models of media substitution, they also contradict "additive models" which assume that the new digital media contribute to a linear increase in the amount and diversity of bilateral communication. Instead, they support "symbiotic" models which imply mutually reinforcing and self-amplifying causal effects between the different media channels. Thus, the microsocial impacts of mobile phones may be considerably deeper than generally expected, because they may contribute to more intensive face-to-face gatherings as well as to new heights in the use of Email and conventional landline phones.
More detailed comparative as well as longitudinal studies will be needed to clarify these causal interactions and their joint impact on the quality of contemporary interpersonal relations.
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Last Update 01.10.2016