In the digital era, face-to-face interaction is no longer the only option for dating couples to navigate their daily interactions. Whether to text or meet in person has become a significant dilemma, especially in romantic relationships where the stakes of communication are high.

The preference for texting versus face-to-face conversation might not just be about convenience. In a recent study that I conducted with my colleague, Catalina Toma, we considered how the trade-offs between these communication options may be intricately tied to the fears that people experience in romantic settings.

The Comfort of Editing in Texting

We asked 257 young adults about their preference for texting versus face-to-face interactions in the context of an exclusive dating relationship. We described situations, some mundane, such as scheduling a date or sharing daily updates, and some challenging, including conflicts, serious talks about the future of the relationship, or even the daunting task of breaking up.

We found a clear trend: people with higher levels of social anxiety consistently preferred texting over face-to-face discussions across all types of conversations. Even for mundane conversations, more socially anxious people had stronger preferences for texting over in-person interaction. However, in comparison to those who were less socially anxious, their preference for texting was especially pronounced when it came to navigating tough conversations and breakups.

At least some of their preference for texting was driven by the fact that texting offers a sense of control that face-to-face interactions cannot match, allowing socially anxious individuals to edit their messages until they present the version that they feel most comfortable with.  As the potential for emotional discomfort in the conversation increases, this "editable" capability of digital communication becomes more valuable and serves as a lifeline for those with social anxiety. It provides a buffer against the immediacy and vulnerability of face-to-face conversations.

For socially anxious individuals, it's not just about avoiding awkward silences or not knowing what to say for a difficult conversation; it's about crafting a response that feels safe and representative of how they wish to be seen.

People Still Crave Face-to-Face Interaction

Interestingly, despite the growing reliance on digital communication like texting, we also found a strong overall preference for face-to-face interaction across different types of relationship conversations, including those that involve conflict or the potential for emotional hurt, such as discussing a potential breakup.

This preference suggests that deep down, people recognize the unique value of in-person interactions in creating deeper connections and understanding, something texting messages cannot fully capture.

What This Means for Us

This research illuminates how people manage and sustain romantic relationships in the digital age. People leverage digital tools in diverse ways, tailored to their personal comfort levels and psychological needs. People generally prefer face-to-face interaction, showcasing a universal desire for deeper, more meaningful connections. Nonetheless, the strategic use of texting by those with social anxiety points to a complex landscape where technology serves as both a bridge and a barrier in romantic relationships.

This dichotomy between digital ease and personal touch underscores that technology does not replace the need for connection and understanding. Rather it reshapes the pathways people choose to fulfill those needs. As people continue to navigate romance in the digital age, understanding these nuances allows them to integrate technology more thoughtfully into their lives, ensuring that it enhances rather than undermines the quality of their relationships.

For Further Reading

Chen, Y. A. & Toma, C. L. (2024). To text or talk in person?: Social anxiety, media affordances, and preferences for texting over face-to-face communication in dating relationships. Media Psychology. 27(3), 428-454.

Chen, Y. A. & Lu, R. M. (2023). Texting or face-to-face for support-seeking in romantic relationships: The role of affordances and attachment. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advance online publication.

Cherelus, G. (2024, March 7). Can new love survive mismatched texting styles? The New York Times.

Y. Anthony Chen is a postdoctoral scholar at the Department of Psychological Science, University of California, Irvine. His research generally revolves around the interpersonal and well-being implications of social media and technologies with a focus on adolescents and youth.