Why Phone Calls Beat Video Chats (and Nothing Beats IRL)

7 minute read
Susanna Schrobsdorff writes the It’s Not Just You newsletter on Substack

A version of this article appeared in this week’s It’s Not Just You newsletter. SUBSCRIBE HERE to have an essay delivered to your inbox every Sunday.

My friend Haley called me the other day. She hadn’t texted me in advance to “find a time” to chat. Nor did we have a Zoom date “on the calendar.” She just up and called me unannounced.

It was thrilling, this unscheduled, spontaneous conversation without a purpose or the weight of a formal catch-up. It felt like wheeling over to someone in the office to hear a joke.

I was reminded of that larger orbit of friendships outside the inner core of those we still see in person, usually because we live with them. Think about all those relationships once sustained by serendipity and proximity, now starved by a year of social distancing.

In what may be the world’s largest sociological experiment, many of us have had to rely almost completely on technology to tend these connections. We now have a whole new cadre of Appointment Friendships.

More from TIME

And even with committed scheduling, it’s not really enough. A recent study from researchers at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, confirms what we now know in our exhausted hearts: video calls, texts, social media, even phone calls are a great supplement to face-to-face interactions, but they aren’t a substitute.

Contrary to what you might expect, the more sophisticated the technology, the less it satisfies our need for connection.

If you’re new to It’s Not Just You, SUBSCRIBE HERE to get an essay delivered to your inbox every Sunday.

Researchers reported that the humble phone call was associated with decreases in stress, loneliness, and relationship difficulties. Meanwhile, video chats were associated with increased stress, loneliness, and difficulties in maintaining relationships.

I get it, we’re less self-conscious on the phone, and you can multitask and talk–maybe fold laundry or eat or both. With video, that uncanny valley of almost being there tends to make you long for the real thing. The UNLV researchers also reported that social media posting, commenting, and sharing was the “modality most strongly associated with stress.”

No one is less surprised about all this than Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist at M.I.T. She’s been studying how technology affects our capacity for empathy and connection since the first Apple computer showed up with a smiley face, reporting her findings in two seminal books: “Reclaiming Conversation” and “Alone Together.”

When I spoke to her a few weeks ago, she’d just published her memoir, “The Empathy Diaries,” which is about becoming one of very few women at M.I.T. and one who was willing to challenge the enduring gospel of the engineering universe: that technology would solve the problems it caused.

Turkle finished working on this book during pandemic shutdowns, which were akin to a real-world test of her life’s work. She writes:

In the crucible of enforced isolation, we explored the limits of where our screens can take us. As technology became our lifeline, we realized how much we missed the full embrace of the human.

The question now is whether we’ve gotten so used to the disconnect of screen communications, so seduced by the convenience and cost savings, that even when we can interact in person, there will be a net increase in the time we spend communicating via screens. Turkle urges us not to settle for a 2D life.

“The amazing thing about living through dramatic change is you are right there when something that once seemed odd begins to seem natural,” says Turkle. “The trick is to remember why it once seemed odd because that might be a reason worth remembering.”

The price for forgetting may be an increase in loneliness which was already epidemic before the pandemic. “The first step is distancing ourselves from this new normal to reclaim our complex selves.”

It seems impossible now that we won’t remember how precious it is to communicate without texting or posting, or even talking. There’s so much beyond the clumsiness of words, like a hand on your arm at the right moment, or the gentle camaraderie of silence. 💌

If you’re new to It’s Not Just You, SUBSCRIBE HERE to get a weekly essay delivered to your inbox every Sunday for free. And write to me any time: Susanna@time.com.

In The Empathy Diaries,” Sherry Turkle’s story starts before her work as a clinical psychologist at M.I.T., where she holds an endowed chair. It’s a coming-of-age story about a girl who grew up in post-war Brooklyn and transformed feelings of being an outsider into a quest to understand others and to advocate for empathy and humanity in the face of massive technological transformations.


What Daylight Savings Time Does to Your Brain Carl Johnson, a chronobiologist at Vanderbilt University says our bodies never really adjust to this annual leap into the future: “Our biologic, natural sun and social clocks have drifted apart.” So be easy on yourself.

If you haven’t listened to Mike Birbiglia’s “Working It Out Podcast,” in which he talks shop with other comedians, check out this episode with Taylor Tomlinson, who, at 27, already has a hit comedy special on Netflix, “Quarter-life Crisis.” The conversation gets very real and very funny about panic attacks, therapy, and parents.

Here’s to a glass half full: 48% of Americans now say they are “hopeful” — up from 20% who said they felt that way during the past year, according to a new Axios-Ipsos poll.

The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring


This month, in honor of International Women’s Day, CARE is hosting a series of talks with fearless women who’ve shown leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic. See the lineup here. For a dose of inspiration, check out Chaka Khan and Idina Menzel‘s soaring remake of the anthem, #I’mEveryWoman, created for the occasion. And consider sending a Care Package to support women and girls in need around the world.


Our weekly acknowledgment of the animals that help us make it through the storm.

This lovely story shared by Nancy is a fine way to mark one year since the start of the pandemic:

Meet Cleo, comfort dog to my daughter Lily who is in her first year of medical school. Lily lives alone with Cleo. She caught Covid from a lab partner a few months ago. Cleo comforted Lily through her illness and is there with kisses at 5 a.m. when she gets up to study. Cleo also forces Lily to go out and play in the snow for much-needed breaks. And she gives comfort to Lily’s study buddies, too.

SHARE this edition of It’s Not Just You on social. And you can send comfort creature photos and comments to: Susanna@time.com
Did someone forward you this newsletter? SUBSCRIBE to It’s Not Just You here.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.