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29.03.2021 15:38

Digital Communication in Times of the COVID Pandemic: I See You, but I Don't Feel You

Birte Vierjahn Ressort Presse - Stabsstelle des Rektorats
Universität Duisburg-Essen

    Seeing our friend's laughter on the display, hearing their voice: It's like they are standing in front of us. Isn't it? A study by the social psychology department of the University of Duisburg-Essen (UDE) challenges a supposedly established theory. The team came to the conclusion that we don't feel closer in times of pandemic, even when our communication appeals to multiple senses. However, we can certainly support each other socially in digital contact, preferably via message to our smartphone. The International Journal of Psychology covers this topic.

    At the beginning of the pandemic, people were advised to switch to digital contact in order to stay close to each other despite the physical distance. Since then, grandma has been reading to her grandson on a video call and the group of friends has been meeting online in the evenings. According to the "propinquity theory" developed in the 1970s, our experienced closeness should grow in proportion to the variety of channels we use.

    But the team led by social psychologist Prof. Nicole Krämer found that the effect of audio-visual communication is limited: the others are still perceived to be distant, even if we can see and hear them. The findings were based on several online surveys during the national lockdown in Germany in March and April 2020.

    Support Works Digitally, but Closeness Does not

    But at least we can provide each other with practical and emotional support: "You're in quarantine? What do you need from the supermarket?" That kind of text or the funny video on the smartphone conveys a feeling of "I'm not with you, but I'm thinking of you."

    This outcome is pivotal for pandemic response strategies. "Messaging each other in particular makes us feel better and more likely to adhere to contact reduction measures," says PhD student Jan Kluck, lead author of the study. "This is a surprising result."

    "We've been exchanging messages with friends and family for a long time – regardless of COVID-19 and even if they live right next door," says Krämer, pointing out a possible explanation. "The video call, let alone the scheduled meeting via online portal in the evening seems more unnatural in that social circle." In addition, we send a message spontaneously, quickly and therefore more regularly, whereas audiovisual contact in real time is usually preplanned.

    Editor: Birte Vierjahn, +49 203/37 9-2427,

    Wissenschaftliche Ansprechpartner:

    Prof. Dr. Nicole Krämer, Social Psychology, +49 203/37 9-2482,


    J.P. Kluck, F. Stoyanova, N.C. Krämer
    „Putting the social back into physical distancing: The role of digital connections in a pandemic crisis“
    International Journal of Psychology, 2021

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