It’s Possible to Establish Proximity Online by Giving a Digital High-Five: Study
Tue, April 20, 2021

It’s Possible to Establish Proximity Online by Giving a Digital High-Five: Study


Feeling close to our loved ones releases oxytocin in our body that makes us feel good, enhances our security and self-confidence, and promotes bonding. But how do you feel closer with people when health safety measures during the pandemic require you to social distance?

A new study conducted by Linköping University researchers shows that it is possible to establish proximity between loved ones even if they are in different places. The solution is video calls and the senses. Though making eye contact or touching a loved one online is impossible, it is still possible to feel close to them.

Expressing longing in a video call

Authors Anna Martín Bylund and Linnéa Stenliden shared via journal Science Daily that longing can be expressed during the video call. Department of Behavioural Sciences and Learning's senior lecturer Anna Martín Bylund said that their research is extra relevant during the Covid-19 pandemic when many people are forced to talk digitally.

To come up with their findings, the researchers analyzed three multilingual families who moved to China and how they communicate with their relatives living in Europe. The authors also studied the family members’ physical and verbal interaction in four video calls. Although the digital interface and physical distance present challenges, the members were still able to establish proximity in innovative and creative ways.

The authors said they used the recordings of the video interaction from the study participants’ computers or mobile phones as well as the cameras installed in their rooms during the experiment. The purpose of installing a separate camera is to capture what family members do during the times they are not in view during the video calls.

Memories, creativity, and humor create proximity

Before the Linköping University study, previous research also discussed the possibility of creating togetherness and proximity digitally. It was found that changing communication patterns affected how people move their bodies and how they move across national boundaries. For the Linköping University study, the researchers found that proximity does not exist at the beginning. It is not given. However, it can be modified or re-created by video calls.

During the video calls, the room plays an important role in creating proximity, including what is shown on the screen and how the body is coordinated to the camera. This particularly applies to small children with no well-developed language.

Humor is also a factor to create emotional proximity despite the physical distance. The on-camera presence during video calls contributes to the fun. For example, zooming in on some parts of the body can lead to laughter and jokes. Proximity is likewise established through the people’s ability to handle the situations that arise between themselves and the people they are speaking to online and their creativity during the conversation, such as the use of a digital high-five.



The digital high-five

Upon observing the multilingual families in their study, the authors noticed that a three-year-old child in China and her grandparents would send each other digital high-fives. Rather than one palm touching another, it is replaced by skin against speech, the muscle memory, and the visual impressions of the high-five. It establishes togetherness between the video participants.

Memories, which participants can relate to, are also evoked during conversations between kids and their family members. During the conversation, when the grandmother mentioned a bag that she gave to her granddaughter, it affected the girl so much that she ran out and got the bag herself. Even after the video conversation, the girl kept her grandmother in her memory while she was holding the bag.

Senior lecturer Linnéa Stenliden highlights how technology used for communication can overcome distance in loved ones even if they are in different countries. The technological solutions similarly create certain conditions for how proximity can be established. “Closer to far away,” the journal reads.

Nevertheless, the researchers believe that further study about transcending the spatial in transnational families through video calling is required because their study involved a small number of participants. They said that they are now taking the results of their research into a new project. In it, they will be investigating the new challenges, like uncomfortable silence, which secondary teachers are now facing as they use distance education amid the Covid-19 pandemic.



Growth in downloads of video conferencing apps

During the week of March 15 to 21, 2020, downloads of Google Hangouts Meet grew 30 times more in the US, 24 times more in the UK, 23 times more in France, and 15 times more in Germany. Downloads of Houseparty also grew 30 times more in France and 36 times more in Germany compared to its weekly average in the last quarter of 2019. Work-from-home policies, government lockdowns, and social distancing have increased the demand for these video conferencing apps.

Change in family relationships during Covid-19 outbreak in China

Management consulting company McKinsey conducted an online survey among 1,300 respondents in China between March 12 to March 18 to determine the change in their family relationships during the Covid-19 outbreak. About 35% of the respondents reported a closer relationship with their family during the outbreak as they spent more time accompanying them. On the other hand, 60% of the respondents said their family relationship is just as usual and 5% answered they have become less close.

Ways to feel closer to others

Clinical psychologist Susan Heitler Ph.D., who is not involved in the study, shares that one of the ways to feel closer to those closest to us is through words. Sharing information about private feelings, such as affection, concerns, and fears creates a sense of partnership. Words that send positive vibes are “Yes” and “I agree,” among others. Expressions of gratitude likewise glue relationships closer, whether that be parent-child or among spouses. Expressions of agreement also form positivity in the relationship.

The shared time in almost any activity similarly enhances the bonds between people, whether they are cooking, cleaning up, or eating together. These things, when done together, intensity the feelings of partnership. Enjoyment also builds closeness as well as doing activities that feature newness, like dining at a different restaurant or traveling together. Eye contact and shared smiles create feelings of connection.