From our sample of 138 participants, 89% acknowledged that they use IM (N = .123). The average age of our participants was 21.4 years old. 64% of the sample was male, and 46% was female. Participants reported using IM most often at home (score of 7.47 on a scale of 10), as opposed to the computer lab (3.7/10) or at work (2.18/10). On average, they reported having the software on, and idle, on average, for about 10 hours per day, however, they reported actually using IM only about 2 hours per day.
Pairwise correlations confirmed that a relationship did in fact exist between the amount of IM use and intimacy(Table 2). Stepwise regressions were thus used to test our hypothesis of a positive relationship between the amount of IM use and level of perceived intimacy. Our hypothesis was supported by data (Tables 3–5). As the amount of IM use increased, so did the level of perceived verbal intimacy, F(1, 108) = 8.24, p < .01. As the amount of IM use increased, so did the level of perceived affective intimacy, F(1, 108) = 4.87, p < .05. As the amount of IM use increased, so did the level of perceived social intimacy, F(1, 108) = 10.24, p < .01.
Table 2. Pairwise correlations among age, the amount of IM use and verbal, affective, and social intimacy *p< .05, **p< .01, ***p< .001.
|1. Age|| ||−.19*||−.22*||.11||−.15|
|2. IM Use Amount|| || ||.32***||.19*||.34***|
|3. Verbal Intimacy|| || || ||.16||.35***|
|4. Affective Intimacy|| || || || ||.38***|
|5. Social Intimacy|| || || || || |
Table 3. Stepwise multiple regression among the amount of IM use, age, gender and verbal intimacy *p< .05, **p< .01, ***p< .001.
| ||β||RSquare Change||F Statistics|
|IM Use Amount||.23**|| ||8.24|
Table 4. Stepwise multiple regression among the amount of IM use, age, gender and affective intimacy *p< .05, **p< .01, ***p< .001.
| ||β||RSquare Change||F Statistics|
|IM Use Amount||.17*|| ||4.87|
Table 5. Stepwise multiple regression among the amount of IM use, age, gender and social intimacy *p< .05, **p< .01, ***p< .001.
| ||β||RSquare Change||F Statistics|
|IM Use Amount||.22**|| ||10.24|
Although our study should be considered preliminary due to the relatively small sample, this research has started a new direction for studies of communication technologies and their influences on interpersonal communication. Our results lend support to our hypothesis that there is a positive relationship between the amount of IM use and verbal, affective, and social intimacy. Our findings are consistent with the liberation position of CMC relationships, and suggest that IM promotes rather than hinders intimacy. What is more, our research indicates that frequent conversation via IM actually encourages the desire to meet face-to-face. For example, participants who reported heavy IM use more strongly agreed with the following statement in our questionnaire “after talking with my friends on IM, I want to see them face-to-face.” This finding implies that online communication can reinforce face-to-face interaction.
Consideration of some of the attributes of IM — near synchronous and text-based — could explain our findings. Text-messaging allows for students to more carefully craft messages, than, for instance, telephone or face-to-face communication — indicative of a situation that encourages intimate exchange (Lenhart et al., 2001). In addition, the notion of privacy, or a private atmosphere, seems to play a central role in the level of intimacy exposed in IM communication. We must also take into account the environment in which people use IM. One theory in interpersonal relationships that may be applied to IM use is that the level of self-disclosure is based, to some extent, on the surroundings (Fitzpatrick, 1988). Research has found that many people often use IM at home, late at night, and separately, where they are vulnerable and lonely (Hu, 2004). Consequently, our research show that more IM users disclose personal, private matters at home than they would elsewhere, which suggests that the context of IM heavily contributes to the relationship between IM and intimacy in college students groups.
The implications of our research suggest that colleges and universities could use IM to appeal to potential college students. That students enhance their relationships with friends through IM may also be applied to family members. Family members, knowledgeable of their college children's changing communication habits, may adopt the technology as well. Parents of college students are reported to use IM considerably less than their children who are in college, but growth in IM among older demographic populations may be imminent (Lenhart et al., 2001).
Manufacturers of IM could tailor the medium more for the college user. Suggested improvements include offering a variety of interfaces from which the college student might choose to develop a personal setting, and increasing the number of available emoticons. Additionally, from an advertising perspective, manufacturers could target college-aged students who will be leaving family and friends behind to attend college. They could emphasize the usefulness of their product(s) for staying connected with friends and family, and, likewise, they could target parents who want to stay connected to their children away at school. Our study helps confirm that geographically remote friends and families can and do benefit from IM. Advertisers can use that knowledge of audience to tailor campaigns.
Limitations of our study include those often understood to be shortcomings of survey research, namely recall of our participants and our inability to show causation. Also, our intimacy measures could be influenced by the mood of our participants and the friends about whom each participant was thinking at the time of our survey. We also asked our participants to generalize about their friendships in the context of IM. Level and type of friendships were not taken into account in our questionnaire, which hinders us from extending our findings to the variety of friends with which college students might communicate when using IM.
Therefore, our study could benefit from future research in which we address friendship at a micro level. Such an exploration should also include whether intimacy between friends has already been established before IM. Of course, a counter argument to that point is many college students might increasingly forge friendships online first. Nonetheless, we recognize that a stronger conceptualization of friends would strengthen our research. In addition to observing intimacy before IM use, establishing causation in our research will require at least an experiment or a longitudinal study, as well considering the degree to which we can rule out confounding or third variables such as friendship type.
Another area for further exploration is a comparison of IM to other media in order to better understand the extent to which IM contributes to intimacy between college students and their friends. According to Jones et al. (2002), IM accounts for 29% of online communication between college students and their friends, whereas e-mail accounts for 62%. Considering the popularity of other forms of online communication, and the relative newness of IM, other investigations should compare intimacy to various media. While our research focuses on intimacy exclusively within the context of IM, future research could examine the relationship between IM, e-mail, telephones, and cellular phones and intimacy in general.
Additionally, more demographic populations should be considered. Controlling for gender and age did not affect the relationship between IM and intimacy; but other demographic variables such as race, nationality, socio-economic status may have an affect on the relationship.
Lastly, we expect that additional methods of studying our dependent variable, in particular, a content or textual analysis, could provide further support for our results. We asked participants to generalize about the content of their IM conversations; however, we may be able to support our analysis of participants' survey responses with actual records of their conversations on IM. This, as well as other methodological approaches, may enhance our research.