Expert Commentary

Instant messages vs. speech: Different neurochemical responses

2011 study in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior on how different modes of communication impact neural stress and attachment 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,” 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

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