Editorial Record: First manuscript received on November 17, 2013. Revisions received on May 1, 2014 and June 17, 2014. Accepted by Nicole Ellison on June 20, 2014. Final manuscript received on June 22, 2014. First published online on August 12, 2014.
Multimodal Connectedness and Quality of Life: Examining the Influences of Technology Adoption and Interpersonal Communication on Well-Being Across the Life Span
Article first published online: 12 AUG 2014
© 2014 International Communication Association
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication
Volume 20, Issue 1, pages 3–18, January 2015
How to Cite
Chan, M. (2015), Multimodal Connectedness and Quality of Life: Examining the Influences of Technology Adoption and Interpersonal Communication on Well-Being Across the Life Span. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 20: 3–18. doi: 10.1111/jcc4.12089
- Issue published online: 29 JAN 2015
- Article first published online: 12 AUG 2014
- Manuscript Accepted: 20 JUN 2014
- Manuscript Revised: 17 JUN 2014
- Manuscript Received: 17 NOV 2013
- New Communication Technologies;
- Multimodal Connectedness;
- Media Multiplexity;
- Socioemotional Selectivity Theory
This study examined the relationship between the number of communication technologies used for social interactions (i.e., multimodal connectedness) and well-being across the lifespan. Consistent with the assumptions of media multiplexity, multimodal connectedness and frequency of strong-tie communication enhanced well-being, but only for older-age cohorts (35–54 and 55–70+). For young adults (18–34), multimodal connectedness and frequency of weak-tie communication diminished well-being. The findings are framed in terms of differing motives for maintaining social relations across the lifespan, as maintenance of relationships with strong ties become more important and the number of weak ties contract as people age.
With the rapid worldwide diffusion of mobile phones and tablet PCs, there are more opportunities than ever for social interactions to be mediated by information and communications technologies (ICTs). Nevertheless, the question of whether mediated communication contributes to or detracts from people's quality of life is still under debate. Rainie and Wellman (2012) argue that we are now living in an age of “networked individualism.” With Internet connectivity and the mobile phone, individuals have perpetual connectivity with others, affording them the ability to develop and maintain meaningful relationships unbound by time or location, to obtain and provide social support, and to be more engaged with the community. However, Turkle (2011) argues that increased connectivity can lead, paradoxically, to even more loneliness because of the mental and emotional effort required to manage one's social networks in a communication environment where distinctions between private and public time and space have become blurred. The need to be readily accessible to others can also create extra stress (Quan-Haase & Collins, 2008) and leave one feeling overwhelmed by ICTs and not in control of one's own life (Mieczakowski, Goldhaber, & Clarkson, 2011).
This study builds on previous research by examining overall ICT device usage and its relation to well-being. This is important because past research tended to examine a technology in isolation (e.g., the ‘Internet’), focus on narrow measures of ‘negative’ well-being (i.e., loneliness, depression), and use primarily college student samples (Huang, 2010). While studying specific technologies may provide interesting insights into their idiosyncratic consequences, it is also important to acknowledge that individuals often supplement their face-to-face interactions with a variety of ICT devices, such as mobile phones and Internet-enabled PCs and laptops, to interact socially with people within their existing social networks (Boase, Horrigan, Wellman, & Rainie, 2006). Thus, considering ICT use collectively may provide a clearer and more realistic picture of the relationship between technology use and overall well-being.
In contrast to very narrow measures of well-being in previous research, this study adopts a more holistic view of well-being (“psychological well-being”) that focuses on various aspects of human functioning and need fulfillment, such as living a purposeful life, being optimistic, and gaining the respect of others (Diener et al., 2009). This perspective is consistent with recent conceptions put forward by policy makers and intergovernmental organizations (e.g. OECD, 2013). In addition, two bodies of literature are also drawn on to elucidate two important contingent factors that may have a role in the relationship. Insights from interpersonal communication research highlight the importance of tie strength and the idea that individuals tend to use more diverse channels more often to maintain relationships with people who are emotionally close to them (i.e., media multiplexity). Furthermore, theories from the aging literature are drawn on to account for possible systematic variations in the relationship between ICT device use and well-being over time. This is worthy of examination because of the abundant evidence suggesting that people at different key stages of their lives differ in the types of ties they associate with as well as the motivations and goals for social communication (Wrzus, Hänel, Wagner, & Neyer, 2013).
These questions are examined with a sample in Hong Kong, one of the most technologically advanced and connected societies in the world. According to census data, 78% of households have a PC at home connected to the Internet (CSD, 2013). Fixed-line residential phone penetration exceeds 100%, while mobile phone subscription penetration stands over 230% (OFCA, 2013). Moreover, Hong Kong has the highest penetration of tablet PCs in the world at 55% (Anjum, 2013). The embeddedness of ICT devices in the everyday lives of Hong Kong citizens thus provides an ideal context to examine the important question posed by scholars, policy makers, and the media, on whether social interactions mediated by technology enhance or detract from quality of life.
Multimodal connectedness and well-being
Humans have a fundamental desire to form and maintain social ties because relationships can provide not only material assistance and social support in times of need but also positive affective and cognitive benefits, such as happiness and self-esteem (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). In turn, evaluating one's quality of life positively is related to a variety of desirable physical, mental, and social outcomes, including greater involvement in civic life, higher income, greater job satisfaction, increased lifespan, and less likelihood of developing mental disorders (Diener & Seligman, 2004). Communication plays a central role because it is through social interactions that one maintains emotional closeness with family (Segrin & Flora, 2005) and form bonds of reciprocity with friends (Hartup & Stevens, 1999). Such bonds may be even more important in ‘collectivist’ societies such as Hong Kong, which generally places greater emphasis on in-group relationships and adherence to social norms (Triandis, 2001). This has some support from the study of Boase and Ikeda (2012), which found that the core networks of Japanese adults are usually longer-lasting than those of American adults.
Indeed, well-being research has shown that happy people have more friends, are more satisfied with their relationships, and spend more time on their relationships (Diener & Seligman, 2002). Given the pivotal relationship between communication and well-being, the impact of ICTs on the dynamic has generated much interest and empirical examination among scholars. Over 2 decades of research has generally demonstrated a positive relationship between Internet use and a variety of well-being indicators across a variety of populations. Early studies of Internet use in the late 1990s showed that increased use was associated with more face-to-face contact, community involvement, trust and well-being (Kraut et al., 2002). Similarly, recent studies of newer ICTs showed that the use of social network sites and instant messaging was related to greater social capital and life satisfaction (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007; Valkenburg, Peter, & Schouten, 2006), and smartphone use for social communication was related to greater self-esteem and less loneliness and depression (Park & Lee, 2012). Studies incorporating qualitative methods offer a more nuanced picture. For example, Quan-Haase and Collins (2008) found that, while instant messaging is perceived by university students to be an effective way to connect with others and engender a sense of belonging, the need to be “always available” can be stressful and necessitates the use of filtering strategies to control access and usage.
Though informative, the above studies typically focus on the influences of one ICT device (e.g. mobile phone) or application (e.g. e-mail). In reality, individuals have what Boase (2008) calls a ‘personal communication system’ and use a variety of ICT devices and applications to supplement their face-to-face interactions. This is manifested in the form of “multimodal connectedness”: defined as “the various modalities through which people maintain their connections with each other in everyday life” (Schroeder, 2010, p. 79). In this context, modality can refer to a communication channel (i.e., text, voice, images, etc.) and its temporal (e.g., synchronous v. asynchronous) and spatial characteristics (e.g., distance and location). For example, the landline phone is considered unimodal (i.e., fixed location synchronous voice), whereas the mobile phone is multimodal because it also affords mobile synchronous text-based communication through instant messaging applications.
While the present study does not explicitly examine the various modalities of communications afforded by ICTs, the concept of multimodal connectedness serves as a guiding heuristic to the assumption that those who use a greater number of ICT devices have more means and opportunities for social interaction at their disposal. Adding a new communications technology, such as the mobile phone, to one's personal communication system fundamentally alters the patterns of everyday communications because it exponentially adds to the number of ways one can interact with existing social ties through such services as e-mail, social network sites, and instant messaging. Moreover, the affordance of anytime anywhere connectivity provided by mobile technologies fulfills what scholars call a “gratification niche” (Ramirez Jr, Dimmick, Feaster, & Lin, 2008). Sending and receiving e-mails while on the move may be suitable for relatively short e-mails and messages and provide new ways of keeping in touch with others, yet the mobile phone cannot fully displace the need for using e-mail on a desktop or laptop PC due to communicative practices that still require the ‘older’ technologies (e.g., writing a long e-mail message, etc.). Therefore, it is unlikely that the adoption of one ICT device will lead to the complete displacement of the other. Instead, as multimodal connectedness increases, more gratification niches will be created that were previously unavailable, leading to even more opportunities for communication, such as the concurrent adoption of social network sites and instant messaging because they serve different user needs (Quan-Haase & Young, 2010).
What are the implications of multimodal connectedness for well-being? One possibility is that that the benefits are cumulative. If Internet and mobile phone use are individually related to well-being, then one possibility is that adoption and use of both technologies for communicative purposes will further increase well-being. An alternative possibility is that always on and accessible connectivity may actually decrease well-being because of the cognitive and emotional demands to be constantly and immediately accessible by others. For example, a comparative study by Mieczakowski and colleagues (2011) found that over a third of adults in the UK, US, and Australia felt “overwhelmed” by ICTs in their everyday lives to the extent that they needed to avoid using them. Studies focusing on work-life balance have also shown that increased connectedness is related to more psychological distress and less family satisfaction due to the spillover of work-related concerns into family life (Chesley, 2005). Given the discussion above, the following research question is raised:
RQ1: Is the relationship between multimodal connectedness and well-being positive or negative?
Thus far, the proposed relationship between ICT use and well-being is conceived as a direct one. However, there are two pertinent contingent factors that may influence the relationship, and they will be elaborated in the follow two sections.
Multiplexity, tie strength, and well-being
Researchers examining the relationship between ICT use and interpersonal communication have long noted that newly adopted ICTs do not displace face-to-face interactions. Rather, they supplement individuals' preexisting family and friendship ties (Quan-Haase & Wellman, 2004; Wellman, Quan-Haase, White, & Hampton, 2001). Early adopters of e-mail and the Internet used them to supplement face-to-face interactions to keep in touch with existing family and friends (Stafford, Kline, & Dimmick, 1999) while college students used the Internet to supplement face-to-face and telephone communications (Baym, Zhang, & Lin, 2004). More recently, Jin and Park (2013) found that mobile phone talk time and frequency were positively related to face-to-face communication with friends. Network analyses of individual's social networks exhibited similar patterns as “heavy communicators” have more kinship and friendship ties and use a variety of ICTs to communicate with such ties more frequently (Boase, 2008).
The use of multiple channels to maintain relationships has been termed “media multiplexity” (Haythornthwaite, 2005) and pertains to the idea that the strength of interpersonal ties is related to the ways and means of communication.1 This is because preexisting strong ties benefit from the integration of ICTs because they provide new forms of multimodal connectedness and in turn facilitate more frequent and diverse interactions, greater levels of intimacy, as well as emotional and material support and exchanges relative to those with fewer channels of communication. Evidence of multiplexity was found in Ledbetter's (2009) study of friendship ties among college students, which showed that those individuals who perceived their friends to be influential and important to their lives use a diverse array of communications (i.e., face-to-face, telephone, social networking sites, instant messaging, and blogs) more often to stay in touch compared to those who are less close with their friends. Moreover, those who are ‘friends’ in interest-based social network sites typically also stay in touch through other ICTs (Baym & Ledbetter, 2009).
The above findings from the interpersonal communication literature point to an important contingent role for tie type in the relationship between multimodal connectedness and well-being, an assumption that also has support in the well-being literature. Helliwell and Putnam's (2004) analysis of national samples in the US and Canada found that frequent interactions with family and close friends was related to higher levels of well-being. People who interact frequently were less likely to feel sad, have low self-esteem and have health-related ailments. Studies in Europe demonstrated an inverse relationship between the number of friends and mental distress. The fewer friends a person has, the less support he or she receives from family, friends, and the work place. Conversely, those with a greater number of friends reported lower incidences of mental distress (Hintikka, Koskela, Kontula, Koskela, & Viinama, 2000).
Taken together, if multimodal connectedness is related to well-being; strong-tie communication is positively related to well-being; and communications with strong ties are characterized by media multiplexity; there is a possibility for an interaction effect such that the relationship between multimodal connectedness and well-being will be stronger for those who communicate with their strong ties more. In other words, media multiplexity is conducive to engendering a positive well-being because of more communication opportunities with strong ties afforded by ICTs. This leads to the following hypothesis:
H1: The relationship between multimodal connectedness and well-being will be greater for those who communicate more frequently with strong ties.
While strong ties can be characterized by emotional intimacy, social support, and mutual reciprocity, weak ties are characterized by the notion of instrumentality as they provide access to information through linkages to acquaintances and the wider community (Kavanaugh, Reese, Carroll, & Rosson, 2005). Such a network structure was demonstrated by Hampton and colleagues' (2011) study of American adults, which found that different uses of the Internet were directly related to greater network diversity (i.e., knowing people from different occupations at varying levels of prestige). Weak ties are useful because they may provide resources and information that may be unavailable within homogenous networks. Therefore, weak-tie communications may strengthen the relationship between multimodal connectedness and well-being given the greater diversity of social contacts and the potential resources and information that can be drawn from them.
However, it is also possible that weak ties may weaken the relationship because of the cognitive resources required to configure and reconfigure social connections within the personal communication system for people in which the individual is not as emotionally close. For example, in-depth interviews with parents conducted by Mieczakowski and colleagues (2011) in the UK reported that the increased intrusion of work-based communications into their private lives had the consequence of interfering with their quality of family life. Related to increased connectedness and more communications is the idea of receiving too much information (i.e., information overload), which has been extensively documented in the organization and management literature (Eppler & Mengis, 2004). In the digital age where mobile phone directories and social network site ‘friend’ lists can reach hundreds if not thousands of users and where messages are received throughout the day, the task of managing one's personal communication system may challenge an individual's cognitive capacities and lead to specific strategies to distance oneself from others. It may necessitate conscious micromanagement of login time and careful selection of who can join one's contact list (Quan-Haase & Collins, 2008) as well as the conscious decision to use less “rich” forms of interaction (i.e., texting) to distance oneself emotionally from others (Turkle, 2011)
Overall, these arguments suggest that a combination of frequent weak-tie communications and multimodal connectedness can actually induce more stress and negatively affect well-being because of the time and energy needed to manage them across different ICTs. Given the different possibilities, the following research question is proposed:
RQ2: Does the relationship between multimodal connectedness and well-being vary by frequency of weak-tie communications?
Interpersonal communication and well-being across the lifespan
In addition to exploring the role of tie strength in the relationship between ICT use and well-being, another important factor is age. This is because of the abundant evidence showing variation in the composition of peoples' social networks and their motivations for social communication across the lifespan. In their meta-analysis of aging literature on social network composition, Wrzus and colleagues (2013) found a consistent pattern of findings where the size of people's social networks generally increases during early adulthood and reaches a peak from the mid-20s to early 30s. Afterwards, the absolute size of people's social networks gradually declines over time as peripheral weak ties are reduced while strong ties with family and friends are maintained.
Two prominent theories explain this phenomenon. Social convoy theory (Antonucci, Akiyama, & Takahashi, 2004) posits that important life events, such as marriage, getting a job, and retirement, would as a matter of course induce a reconfiguration of social ties. The transition from college to work life is one example. Because working adults often blend their private and work networks, they generally have smaller networks than they did in college, but their relationships are likely to be more enduring and important.
Socioemotional selectivity theory explains the change in terms of people's need to fulfill ‘emotion regulation’ goals as they age because of the increasing realization of impending mortality. Therefore, older individuals are more motivated to seek out positive emotional experiences and minimize negative emotional experiences. This contrasts with younger individuals who have a more expansive perception of time and are more motivated to fulfill ‘information seeking’ goals that provide additional knowledge and access to new opportunities (Carstensen, Isaacowitz, & Charles, 1999). One way for older individuals to maximize such positive emotional experiences is to selectively configure their social networks so that they engage in more emotionally satisfying relationships with close ties while discarding less satisfying, often peripheral, relationships. Indeed, such a pattern was found in English and Carstensen's (2014) 10-year longitudinal study. During the period, the absolute size of participants' social networks contracted primarily through the loss of peripheral ties. At the same time, they reported more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions associated with their existing social relationships.
The assumptions of socioemotional selectivity theory in particular have several implications for this study's examination of multimodal connectedness and well-being. One logical outcome is that older people will communicate more frequently with strong ties (i.e., family and close friends) compared to those who are younger. Conversely, frequency of communication with weak ties (i.e., coworkers and acquaintances) for them may be less. Another possible consequence is that the impact of the interaction of multimodal connectedness and strong-tie communication on well-being as proposed by the first hypothesis should be more prominent for older people because they should derive greater satisfaction through multiplex communications, which in turn should lead to greater feelings of well-being.
The consequences for younger people may be different. Because they generally have more weak ties, the question arises as to whether increased weak-tie communication and multimodal connectedness will negatively affect the well-being of the younger age group given the instrumental nature of the communications and the cognitive efforts required to maintain such ties across diverse ICTs. Thus, based on the discussions above, the following research question is raised:
RQ3: Do the relationships among multimodal connectedness, communication, and well-being vary across different age groups?
The sample was derived from telephone surveys conducted in July 2013 by a research center of a public university in Hong Kong. Respondents were all Cantonese-speaking local residents aged between 18 and 70. The sample was generated through the latest residential directories, and telephone numbers were randomly selected. To include households not in the directories, the last two digits were replaced by random numbers (00–99), and the most recent birthday method was employed to select the target respondent from each household. A total of 514 interviews were completed, yielding response rates of 61% according to the RR6 standard of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR, 2011).
This variable is operationalized as the number of ICT devices that individuals use to communicate with others. Respondents indicated whether they use the following ICTs for communication purposes (1 = Yes, 0 = No): 1) landline telephones, (2) mobile phones, (3) desktop PCs, (4) Internet-enabled laptop PCs, and (5) Internet-enabled tablet PCs. The five binary responses were then combined to form a cumulative index of multimodal connectedness (M = 3.52, SD = 1.26, Min = 0, Max = 5, median = 4). The rationale for examining the use of ICTs at the level of the device rather than specific applications (e.g., e-mail, social network sites, instant messaging, etc.) is that the addition of new devices to one's personal communication system exponentially increases accessibility and connectivity within one's social network. Each device in turn provides not only a variety of communication applications but also new spaces and times for communication that were previously unavailable. Evidence for this trend is demonstrated by the increasing use of wireless Internet through laptops and mobile phones (Horrigan, 2009) and wi-fi online access in public spaces (Hampton & Gupta, 2008). Therefore, variance in ICT device adoption may be particularly effective in discriminating different levels of well-being as they are more reflective of the embeddedness of ICTs into the patterns of people's everyday lives. Of course, examining multimodal connectedness at the level of applications is also useful and can be the focus of future studies.
Strong-tie and weak-tie communication
For strong ties, respondents indicated the frequency (0 = never, 1 = rarely, 2 = sometimes, 3 = often) in which they chat with family members and very close friends face-to-face (M = 2.45, SD = .93). For weak ties, respondents indicated the frequency in which they chat with coworkers and acquaintances face-to-face (M = 1.93, SD = .91).2 Interaction terms were also created that crossed both measures with multimodal connectedness. To simplify the analysis and facilitate cross-cohort comparisons face-to-face communication served as the baseline for measuring strong and weak tie communication as it is the most common mode of interaction in Hong Kong.
Collected information included gender (Male = 47.7%), age (M = 6.92, SD = 3.23, 7 = 45–49 years old), education (M = 4.76, SD = 1.84, 4 = senior high school), and household income per month (M = 6.66, SD = 3.15, 6 = HK$25,000-29,999, equivalent to US$3,200-3,800). The demographics are slightly older and more educated than the most recent Hong Kong census, so their values were weighted in subsequent analyses to take this into account.
The 8-item Psychological Well-Being Scale (PWB) by Diener and colleagues (2009) was adopted for this study. Compared to narrow measures of well-being adopted by previous ICT studies (e.g., loneliness, self-esteem), the PWB scale is a holistic measure that focuses on what is considered “optimal” for human functioning in various facets of life, such as life meaning, relationship quality, optimism, and respect from others. Previous psychometric testing of the scale by Diener and colleagues among U.S. college samples demonstrated good internal, test-retest, and convergent validity. The Chinese sample in this study addressed external validity.
Respondents in this study indicated their level of agreement (1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree) to eight questions from the PWB scale: (1) I lead a purposeful and meaningful life, (2) My social relationships are supportive and rewarding, (3) I am engaged and interested in my daily activities, (4) I actively contribute to the happiness and well-being of others, (5) I am competent and capable in the activities that are important to me, (6) I am a good person and live a good life, (7) I am optimistic about my future, and (8) People respect me. The score for each item was then added to form a single measure of psychological well-being (M = 30.21, SD = 5.14, Min = 10, Max = 40, median = 30, alpha = .85). An additional factor analysis with oblimin rotation was conducted to ascertain the scale's factor structure. As expected, only one factor had an eigenvalue above 1.0, explaining 49% of the variance.
The ownership and use of different communication technologies for social communication is summarized in Table 1. The mobile phone constituted the most popular mode of communication, followed by the landline telephone, desktop PC, laptop PC and tablet PC. While the relative distribution of technologies used by the 18–34 and 35–54 age groups are very similar, it is not too surprising that seniors use primarily phone-based communication and not PC-based ICTs. This is consistent with the trend in many societies that seniors tend to use computers and adopt newer technologies less than younger cohorts (Zickuhr & Smith, 2012).
An examination of the well-being scores among the cohorts showed very little difference (18–34, M = 30.36, SD = 5.14; 35–54, M = 30.12, SD = 5.23; 55+, M = 30.24, SD = 5.80). Table 2 shows the frequency of strong and weak-tie communication arranged by age group. Analysis of variance tests showed that there were significant differences for strong-tie, F(2,504) = 12.10, p < .001, and weak-tie communication, F(2,505) = 3.37, p < .01. Post hoc analyses using the Tukey post hoc criterion for significance indicated that the 55-70+ group had less strong-tie communication than the other age groups, while the 18–34 age group had more weak-tie communication than the other two groups. These findings are generally consistent with those in the aging and well-being literature.
|Strong-tie communication||Weak-tie communication|
Pearson correlations were also conducted to assess the basic relationships among the study variables and are summarized in Table 3. The frequency of strong- and weak-tie communication was positively related to well-being and multimodal connectedness, but multimodal connectedness was not related to well-being
Linear regression analyses (see Table 4) were conducted to examine whether the relationship between multimodal connectedness and well-being is positive or negative (RQ1). In all, eight models were examined, consisting of a basic model (demographics, communication and multimodal connectedness) and an interaction model (basic model plus interaction terms) for each age cohort category and the complete sample.
|Gender (0 = Male)||.37***||.34***||.12#||.12#||.16*||.15#||.19***||.18***|
|Weak-tie communication||−.05||.02||.20**||.21**||.17*||.10||.12 **||.10*|
|Multimodal connectedness x Strong tie||−.03||.13*||.14#||.11*|
|Multimodal connectedness x Weak tie||−.15*||−.01||−.12||−.12**|
|Final adjusted R2||.26||.27||.14||.15||.07||.08||.09||.11|
The basic model (#7) examined the whole sample and significantly predicted well-being (R2 = .10, F(7,476) = 7.73, p <. 001), explaining 9% of the variance. Yet, the beta for multimodal connectedness was not significant, suggesting no direct relationship between multimodal connectedness and well-being. The basic models in the other cohorts provide a different picture. Multimodal connectedness exhibited a significant negative relationship with well-being (β = −.24, p < .01) for the 18–34 cohort (model #1), a marginally significant positive relationship (β = .12, p < .10) for the 35–54 cohort (model #3), and no significant relationship for the 55-70+ cohort (model #5). In other words, the direct relationship between multimodal connectedness and well-being can be different according to the age cohort.
Based on the assumptions of multiplexity, H1 proposed that the relationship between multimodal connectedness and well-being will be greater for those who communicate more frequently with strong ties. The interaction model (#8) significantly predicted well-being (R2 = .12, F(9,474) = 7.29, p <. 001) and explained an extra 2% of the variance compared to the basic model. Moreover, the interaction term (multimodal connectedness x strong tie communications) was significant (β = .11, p < .05), thus supporting H1 and the argument that strong-tie communication strengthens the relationship between multimodal connectedness and well-being. The same model was examined to address whether the relationship between multimodal connectedness and well-being would vary according to frequency of weak-tie communications (RQ2). The interaction term (multimodal connectedness x weak tie communications) was negative and significant (β = −.12, p < .01), suggesting that the relationship between multimodal connectedness and well-being is weakened by frequency of weak-tie communications.
Examination of the interaction models from different age cohorts (RQ3) showed that the interaction between multimodal connectedness and strong-tie communication was positive and significant (β = .13, p < .05) for the 35–54 cohort (model #4) and marginally so (β = .14, p < .10) for the 55-70+ cohort (model #6). On the other hand, there was a significant interaction of multimodal connectedness and weak tie communication (β = −.15, p < .05) for the 18–34 cohort (model #2).
The importance of well-being and its measurement, particularly at the policy making level, has become more prominent in recent years, as exemplified by initiatives such as the Measuring National Well-being project by the United Kingdom's Office for National Statistics and the Better Life Initiative by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 2013). Therefore, the question of whether social communication and ICTs improve or decrease well-being is one that is of interest to scholars and policy makers alike. This study examines the question through the perspectives of multimodal connectedness, media multiplexity, and socioemotional selectivity theory. With its advanced technical infrastructure, availability of new technologies, and very affordable Internet access and mobile plans, Hong Kong is the ideal place to examine the relationships because multimodal communication is prevalent in this highly urbanized city.
An examination of the basic regression models shows the different influences of multimodal connectedness on well-being by age. While the relationship was positive for the 35–54 cohort, it was negative for the 18–34 cohort. Moreover, the interaction models support the notion that media multiplexity, operationalized here as a combination of strong-tie communications and multimodal connectedness, leads to greater well-being, but only for the 35–54 and 55-70+ age cohorts. For the 18–34 cohort, more frequent weak-tie communication negatively influences the relationship between multimodal connectedness and well-being. The findings demonstrate the utility of conducting subgroup analyses when justified by theory. When examining the basic model alone for the whole sample (model #7), it would appear that there is no direct relationship between multimodal connectedness and well-being. However, analyses by age cohort show that the relationship is in fact significant, but in different directions according to age cohort, thus ‘cancelling’ out each other when the sample is examined as a whole.
Socioemotional selectivity theory (Carstensen et al., 1999) provides a plausible explanation for the pattern of findings. As individuals age, they are motivated to spend more time in meaningful and fruitful relationships that maximize positive feelings and minimize negative feelings (Wrzus et al., 2013). Therefore, well-being is maintained by selectively maintaining a network of strong emotional ties and culling less emotionally satisfying weak peripheral ties as one ages. Using a diverse range of technologies can further help to maintain strong-tie relationships because they facilitate anytime, anywhere communications. However, younger individuals are more driven to develop weak ties because their priorities are to obtain knowledge and instrumental benefits rather than emotional closeness because their perception of time is quite different (i.e., it is unlimited). They are less likely to seek out emotional bonds because they are less important. However, this may come at a price since, as Turkle (2011) and others note, cultivating and maintaining weak ties takes time and effort and may challenge the cognitive capacities of individuals. As multimodal connectedness increases, so do the contact lists and the need to be available and accessible to others.
Of course, more studies and additional variables will help to further validate the socioemotional selectivity explanation. For example, measures of ‘relational quality’ (Baym, Zhang, Kunkel, Ledbetter, & Lin, 2007) will be useful to ascertain whether older cohorts do indeed perceive their ties to be of higher quality as multimodal connectedness increases. Network characteristics are also relevant and may contribute to well-being. For example, older people are more likely to have known their friends for longer and their social networks are more likely to have greater homogeneity (e.g. sharing similar hobbies and interests). Furthermore, studies based on the uses and gratifications framework have long examined and demonstrated a diverse range of motivations for individuals to use ICTs (Wei, 2008). However, these studies have by and large implicitly assumed that the motivations of technology use are the same across the life span, ignoring the possibility that people across different age groups have different relational needs as they age. With the addition of relational quality and motivation measures, it will be possible to examine whether older individuals who are motivated by socialization needs to communicate with strong ties will perceive their relationships to be of high quality, which in turn could lead to higher perceptions of well-being. Conversely, one can examine whether ICT use for instrumental purposes with weak ties will lead to lower perceptions of relational quality and well-being as multimodal connectedness increases.
The role and scope of age as a variable also require further elaboration and expansion in future studies. In this study, age is conceived purely as a chronological phenomenon. Nevertheless, in the sociological and cultural studies literature, it is also conceived as a social construction in terms of one's identification with one's age as well as the meaning and values attributed to it by society. For example, studies have shown that after controlling for chronological age, those who feel younger are typically more optimistic about life and live longer (Schafer & Shippee, 2010). This suggests that age identity may have a role in the dynamic between ICT use and well-being, as those who perceive themselves as young may be earlier adopters and regular users of new ICTs.
In addition to age, this study also illuminates the important role of multimodal connectedness. Past studies examining the relationship between ICT use and well-being have tended to focus on one technology even though people in the real world are by and large users of multiple ICTs. The differential influences of multimodal connectedness in this study highlight the importance of the variable and the notion that it should be included in future models and frameworks examining ICT use and well-being because the degree of ‘connectedness’ with others can have differential outcomes. The operationalization of multimodal connectedness at the level of device also offers a parsimonious way to compare relative levels of ICT use across different demographics and cultures. Of course, future studies should also focus on multimodal connectedness at the application level, such as e-mail, instant messaging, and social network sites. Previous work suggests that more diversity and frequency of communications are related to greater network size (Boase, 2008). However, whether this also leads to greater well-being is open to question.
Limitations and further research
Several limitations of the study should be addressed. First, care should be taken to generalize the findings beyond the study sample given that each individual country has its unique cultural norms and is at its own stage of technological development. In particular, Hong Kong is characterized by its high penetration of ICTs across different age groups. Data plans are relatively inexpensive, and free Wi-Fi hotspots are abundant. Moreover, 90% of citizens use public transport, which provides an important ‘in transit’ niche (Dimmick, Feaster, & Hoplamazian, 2010) that facilitates mobile social communications. Historically, Hong Kong is also considered by cross-cultural psychologists as a collectivist culture, which is characterized by a general orientation towards harmony, group goals, and familial ties (Triandis, 1996). Such an orientation may privilege strong-tie relationships and communication. Thus, cross-cultural comparisons with individualist cultures and places with different levels of technological development will be needed to examine whether the pattern of findings in this study is generalizable.
In terms of measurement of the key variables, the present study has a bias towards face-to-face relationships, as it uses frequency of face-to-face communications as a baseline for multimodal connectedness. Still, it is also possible for people who very rarely meet face-to-face to communicate very actively through ICTs. In other words, those who only communicate with strong ties exclusively through ICTs may also engender higher levels of well-being. To address these types of relationships, future studies of well-being should measure the degree of face-to-face and mediated communications for both strong and weak ties.
Another key variable is tie strength, which has been conceptualized and measured in different ways in the past 3 decades of research (Marsden & Campbell, 2012). In this study, the relational category approach was adopted as the measure of tie strength, with the implication that ties based on kinship are ‘strong’ and those based on affiliations are ‘weak.’ The choice was due in part to the method of using telephone-based surveys, which had inherent time limitations and therefore required quick recall from the respondents. However, even within such roles, wide variations of tie strength, such as an individual feeling emotionally very close to a coworker, can exist. One way of incorporating measurements of closeness with relational categories in a telephone survey context is to use the summation method that combines the relational category approach with measures of relational closeness (see Boase, 2008). Greater precision of the above measures should also help to address the somewhat low variance explained for some of the regression models.
A minor contribution of this study is that it validated the external validity of the psychological well-being (PWB) scale in a Chinese context. Nevertheless, the scale only measures the eudaimonic aspects of well-being, which are concerned with the self-actualization and human potential aspects of well-being (Ryan & Deci, 2001). There are also affective and cognitive dimensions, including emotional well-being and degree of life satisfaction (Diener et al., 2009). Although all these measures are interrelated, they measure slightly different aspects of well-being, and it would be worthwhile to examine whether the influence of ICTs varies according to different types of well-being. For example, given the assumptions of socioemotional selectivity theory, it is reasonable to assume that the emotional aspects of well-being (i.e., happiness, joyfulness, etc.) may play a particularly important role for the older cohorts. Moreover, it is important to recognize that psychological well-being is just one aspect of assessing people's overall well-being, which can also encompasses material and structural conditions, such as income and the quality of the environment (OECD, 2013).
Finally, it should be noted that the use of a cross-sectional survey precludes total confidence in the direction of causality between technology use and well-being. Longitudinal research designs will be necessary to establish the direction of causality. Moreover, reliance on self-report single-item measures adopted in this study may have reliability and validity implications for some of the variables. Granted, these issues are inherent for all survey-based data collection, but future studies could alleviate potential error through the use of more sophisticated measures, such as the time-space diary method (see Dimmick et al. 2010) that can capture frequency of ICT use in different contexts (i.e. communication with different ties) on a typical day.
To conclude, communication technologies have pervaded all aspects of our lives and in turn have affected the ways in which we communicate with each other. At the same time, researchers, policy makers, and government organizations alike recognize the benefits to society when individuals feel that their lives have meaning and purpose. Communication scholars are thus well-placed to examine the various roles played by communication and technology in facilitating the development of well-being and put forward practical policy recommendations for engendering well-being across communities and states. This study contributes to the literature on ICT use and well-being by elucidating and demonstrating the differential influences of communication technologies and interpersonal communication on well-being. More importantly, it provides a theoretically informed account of the important role of age in the relationships, and highlights the need for future theoretical frameworks and research designs to include life stage factors when studying the relationship between communication and well-being.
This contrasts with the concept of multimodal connectedness, which focuses on the different modalities (e.g., channel, time, space, etc.) in which people can communicate. Moreover, multimodal connectedness does not presume the nature of social relationships nor their relative strength or closeness.
While measures of relative frequency may not be as reliable as absolute measures (i.e., actual minutes spent), this format is necessary in the Hong Kong context where CATI-based surveys in general have to be fairly short and demand less cognitive effort on the part of the respondents so as to minimize noncompletion.
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