Does digital communication displace traditional communication?

A key question in the digital era is whether new forms of digital communication, such as instant messages, video calls, e-mails, have displaced or reinforced more traditional forms of communication, such as meeting face-to-face, contact by phone, sending letters or postcards.

These opposing hypotheses, i.e. digital communication as a reinforcer versus a displacer, have attracted attention among scholars. However, studies have scarcely explored these hypotheses in the context of communication among relatives. Using large-scale and population-based data of 1 945 young to middle-aged (18–55 year-olds) and 2 663 older (68–73 year-olds) Finns, Danielsbacka, Tammisalo and Tanskanen tested the predictions derived from the displacement and reinforcement hypotheses in several kin dyads (parent–child, grandparent-grandchild, siblings, and aunt/uncle-niece/nephew).

They found important gender and age differences. First, mothers, daughters, sisters, and maternal grandmothers were found to communicate more frequently than their male (or paternal) counterparts. Second, in terms of age, digital methods were more common in the younger generation.

The main analyses revealed that overall, digital contact was positively associated with all traditional forms of contact in all kin dyads, regardless of gender, age, and type of kin. In other words, digital forms of contact do not appear to displace traditional forms of contact, but rather reinforcing them regardless of age and kin relationship status. This implies that the higher the frequency of digital contact the higher the frequency of also traditional forms of contact.

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Danielsbacka, M., Tammisalo, K. & Tanskanen, A.O. (2022) Digital and traditional communication with kin: displacement or reinforcement? Journal of Family Studies, 28.