By Alex Fradera
The average young adult sends more than 100 texts per day, mainly to offer social support to friends and family. But until now, there has been little evidence whether it helps the recipient or not. New research in Computers in Human Behavior confirms that sending a comforting text to a partner confronted with a difficult task really can make them feel supported. But more surprisingly, the study suggests that to actually reduce their stress, it’s better to send a message that isn’t explicitly supportive.
Emily Hooker and colleagues from the University of California asked 75 women to attempt a stressful set of tasks involving mental mathematics and public speaking. At the start of the experiment they were fitted with a blood pressure cuff to capture information about blood flow and heart rate. While waiting to perform, some participants received texts from their romantic partner who was waiting in the other room. Crucially, some of the partners sent texts (scripted by the researchers) that were comforting (e.g. “Don’t worry. It’s just a psych study. You’ll be fine.”) whereas others sent more mundane texts that were not explicitly supportive (e.g. “It’s cold in here.”). Participants also received a second reinforcing text with the same tone as the first (i.e. either supportive or mundane) while they prepared for their challenge (other participants acted as a baseline control group and received no texts at any point).
After delivering the task, participants who’d earlier received a comforting text reported feeling more supported by their partner (compared with the controls). However, it was only those participants who’d earlier received mundane texts who showed a physical reduction in their stress response, as shown by lower systolic blood pressure during preparation and the task itself.
There is evidence that attempts to support other people that give the impression of social evaluation – “I can see that you’re struggling” – are ineffective at reducing stress, and Hooker’s team conjecture that the supportive texts, by making direct references to the stressful tasks, may have inadvertently triggered this effect, although this was not explicitly tested for in the study. If so, it adds to research suggesting that “invisible” support – like offering unrelated humour – can be one of the more effective forms of reducing stress through social support. In this case, simply the reminder that the boyfriend was next door, grumbling about the cold, affirmed that the person was not alone, and could receive comfort or validation should that be needed (e.g. if the stressful event went badly).
This finding certainly needs follow-up research to figure out what are the ingredients in different forms of text-based social contact to affect how we feel. It’s worth noting that the effect of the mundane messages also involved a slower recovery to blood pressure baseline than the supportive text or the control condition. So it may be that different kinds of messages can have selective effects on different phases of the stress response. Studies have begun to show downsides of heavy texting use, such as school performance and sleep, although in many cases these may be confounded by use of mobile phones in general. It’s useful, then, to see evidence of something many of us assume and hope for – that contact with loved ones via text can provide them with a sense of being supported during stressful events.