Why Phone Calls Combat Loneliness Better Than Zoom Calls

The phone is better at reducing stress, too

Tom Jacobs
Elemental
Published in
6 min readApr 1, 2021

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A woman laughing while talking on phone.
Photo: Ridofranz/iStock/Getty Images Plus

When it comes to technology, many of us reflexively assume newer is better. So when Covid-19 forced us into isolation a year ago, we turned to our digital devices to stay in touch with family and friends.

New research suggests our instinct to communicate via video chats and social media may not be the optimal choice. Rather, the technology that is proving most effective at reducing pandemic-induced stress and loneliness is one that was already available during the influenza outbreak of 1918: the telephone.

In a U.S. survey of almost 2,000 adults last May, participants responded to questions about their emotional health and their use of various electronic devices. The results, published in the journal Human Communication & Technology, showed that those who kept in touch with friends and family over the phone reported lower levels of stress and loneliness than those who used newer tools such as Zoom.

“Voice calls actually alleviated stress even more than face-to-face communication.”

“For combating loneliness, the effect of voice calls was really close to face-to-face,” says study author Natalie Pennington, a communications studies professor at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. “Voice calls actually alleviated stress even more than face-to-face communication.”

She and her colleagues found that the loneliest and most stressed people of all were active users of social media, those who spent their time posting, sharing, and commenting on other people’s posts. Facebook and Instagram may be addictive, but like most addictions, they ultimately satisfy a craving instead of a need — in this case, a need for connection.

I spoke with Pennington — over the phone, of course — about these findings and what they suggest about human-to-human communication in a high-tech world.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Elemental: Your findings are somewhat counterintuitive because video chatting would seem to be the next best thing to in-person interaction. Were you surprised that these

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Tom Jacobs
Elemental

Tom Jacobs is a California-based journalist who focuses on psychology, behavior, creativity, and the arts. He was the senior staff writer of Pacific Standard.