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In developmental psychology, the existing literature on social media use, while increasingly sophisticated, has nonetheless relied primarily on survey-based approaches.

In the field of communication and media studies, on the other hand, a rich literature spanning from the middle of the 20th century to the present has experimentally compared in-person and computer-mediated communication (CMC).

The above evidence from the media studies literature might suggest that when young adults engage in digital communication, they can, with time, achieve the same level of connectedness as in-person communication.

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This question is provocative, but difficult to test empirically.

One way to address potential differences in digital and in-person communication is to compare them directly.

Participants reported feeling connected in all conditions.

However, bonding, as measured by both self-report and affiliation cues, differed significantly across conditions, with the greatest bonding during in-person interaction, followed by video chat, audio chat, and IM in that order.

Furthermore, today’s 18-29 year olds are often described as “digital natives” because they have grown up using these technologies, utilizing text-based tools to develop existing friendships during adolescence, a sensitive period for socioemotional development (Baird, 2010; Prensky, 2001; Steinberg, 2005).

While research has established that digital communication can enhance existing friendships over the long-term (e.g., Valkenburg & Peter, 2007, 2009), a continuing concern among some is that youth are less “connected” than they were in the past or that increasing digital communication contributes to stunted socioemotional or empathic growth (Small & Vorgan, 2008; Turkle, 2012).

In contrast, adolescents and young adults use digital tools mainly to communicate with existing connections, whether friends, family, or acquaintances (Gross, 2004; Reich, Subrahmanyam, & Espinoza, 2012; Subrahmanyam, Reich, Waechter, & Espinoza, 2008; Valkenburg & Peter, 2007).

Stated differently, youth use digital media to maintain connections established in face-to-face contexts.

While bonding may take longer, Walther argues, it can ultimately reach levels present in face-to-face communication.

Interlocutors furthermore may experience the online disinhibition effect (Suler, 2004), whereby the nature of text-based communication itself contributes to feelings of intimacy and connectedness.

Because adolescent and emerging adults’ digital communication is primarily text-based, this finding has significant real-world implications.

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