Instant Messages vs. Speech: Different Neurochemical Responses
Speaking with a family member or friend triggers hormonal changes in the body that reduce stress, calm nerves and promote social bonding. It is not clear, however, which elements of a verbal exchange — grammar, syntax, tone and/or word choice — are responsible for triggering these neurochemical responses.
A 2011 study published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, “Instant Messages vs. Speech: Hormones and Why We Still Need to Hear Each Other” (PDF), administered the Trier Social Stress Test for Children to 68 preteen girls, and then assigned each participant one of four test conditions: (a) directly engaging with a parent; (b) speaking to a parent over the phone; (c) sending a parent a text message; or (d) no parental engagement at all. The hormone levels of the participants were measured before and after the Trier test.
The paper’s findings include:
- Changes in levels of cortisol (a hormone associated with stress) were elevated in the group using instant messaging to communicate with parents and in the group that had no contact with parents; in comparison, the changes in cortisol levels were significantly lower in the group that had direct and phone contact with parents.
- The highest levels of oxytocin (a hormone associated with the formation of positive emotional relationships) “were obtained from children permitted to make either direct contact or contact over the phone; these groups did not differ from one another.”
The researchers conclude that instant messaging “does not appear to fulfill all of the same biological functions as other types of social exchange, such as vocal communication and in-person interactions. In terms of stress mediation … instant messaging is no substitute for spoken language or direct, interpersonal interaction between mothers and daughters in middle childhood.”
Tags: youth, technology, cognition
Note to instructor: The suggested assignments are designed for flexibility. They can be used in whole or part and can be adapted to a particular task -- for example, the newswriting assignments could be applied to the writing of the headline, the lead, the nut graph or the full story. Material from the assignments could also be combined with other material, for example, in the writing of a background, feature or local-angle story.
Read the Evolution of Human Behavior study "Instant Messages vs. Speech: Hormones and Why We Still Need to Hear Each Other" (PDF).
- Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
- Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
Read the issue-related Washington Post article "Texting generation doesn't share boomers' taste for talk."
- Using the article and the study as a jumping-off point, how might the ideas, data points and frames of reference relating to tweens' neurochemical responses to verbal communication might be useful to pull into a story examining texting practices? How can comparisons be problematic?
- Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
- Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.