Touching Messages: How tactile emoticons enhance online social support

In a recent study published in PLoS ONE, researchers investigated the impact of touch during digital communications.

They evaluated the role of tactile emoticons in sensing social acceptance and assistance during social media conversations compared to (first experiment) or with (second experiment) traditional visual emoticons.

Study: Tactile emoticons: Conveying social emotions and intentions with manual and robotic tactile feedback during social media communications. Image Credit: Sichon/Shutterstock.comStudy: Tactile emoticons: Conveying social emotions and intentions with manual and robotic tactile feedback during social media communications. Image Credit: Sichon/Shutterstock.com

Background

Touch is a crucial nonverbal technique for socio-affective communication; however, most digital platforms do not provide effective tactile signals. Traditional social media systems use vision and audition to share nonverbal material. Social contact may transmit meaning, elicit emotions, and shape behavior.

Healthy individuals can interpret emotions through touch, such as sympathy, whereas known senders express love, grief, and thanks.

Even modest touches from strangers can convey closeness and social support without visual or aural cues. The rising significance of affective computing has resulted in the creation of many applications and a reassessment of the benefits of touch.

About the study

In the present study, researchers explored the impact of affective touch on social media conversations. They also investigated whether delivering visual and tactile emoticons using a soft robotic device may increase prosocial intent perception and physiological markers.

Experiment 1 emulated a social media communication platform wherein healthy participants read written postings with a positive or negative affective touch. A confederate provided tactile or visual input with low or high support.

The team hypothesized that study participants would sense more social assistance and acceptance when they received tactile input rather than visual feedback. The researchers included 39 University College London (UCL) attendees without mental, neurological, or dermatological disorders. They conducted the study from June to September 2019.

The second experiment explored the impact of mixing tactile emoticons with visual emotions on social acceptance and support perceptions. The researchers used proven soft robotic sleeves (S-CAT) to provide affective contact at appropriate speeds.

They investigated the effects of identification with the post on perceived social purpose and the influence of emotions of safety and trust on participants' responses to tactile input. They hypothesized that visuotactile feedback would result in larger reductions in physiological markers than visual input.

The researchers used a 2 (feedback mode: visual vs. visuotactile) x 2 (valence: positives vs. negatives) within-groups design to investigate the influence of these variables on the perception of social feedback during social media conversations.

They picked six emoticons per valence, commonly used to communicate socially friendly connotations with varying intensities.

They investigated the effects of feedback support amount and valence on perceived social intent (DV). It included two-way interactions between feedback modes, support levels, and feedback mode and valence.

The researchers engaged in three-way exchanges with a social purpose (DV). They modulated valence using sentence stimuli (32 for each valence), provided as Twitter-like postings. Tactile emoticons comprised short brush strokes against participants’ skin at CT-optimal velocities (3.0 cm/sec or 6.0 cm/sec) or suboptimal speeds (0.3 cm/sec).

Visual emoticons had very socially supportive inferences (high-level support: thumbs up or red heart) or specific meanings (neutral blue heart indicated low-level support). The team used multilayer modeling (MLM) for each prediction.

Results

Stroking tactile emoticons at ideal velocities, or CT-optimal velocities, could boost sentiments of social assistance and prosocial intents more than stroking-type touch delivered at sub-optimal speeds or visual emoticons.

Study participants preferred visuotactile input over visual feedback and reported considerably higher levels of social intent when using CT-optimal velocities vs. sub-optimal speeds or visually presented emoticons.

Participants indicated a higher impression of social intent after receiving high vs. low feedback support levels. Positive statements scored higher in terms of social aim than negative ones.

Visuotactile emoticons expressed stronger social intent overall, whereas worried people had a more profound impact on physiological markers than visual emoticons.

Participants associated with the postings indicated higher levels of perceived social intent. Increased trust predicted stronger perceived social intent, and trust profoundly impacted perceived social intent in beneficial terms.

Visuotactile feedback did not influence physiological measurements, including heart rate, skin conductance rates, or heart rate variability. Participants reported higher levels of social intent after receiving visuotactile feedback, particularly on posts with positive valence.

Increased emotions of safety and trust while wearing the S-CAT were associated with a higher evaluation of social intent in the visuotactile feedback mode.

Feedback modality did not predict physiological changes, although higher rejection sensitivity and trait anxiety ratings explained more of the SCR and HRV variation after visuotactile feedback than visual feedback.

Conclusion

The study found that tactile and visuotactile emoticons may successfully transmit prosocial intent, especially when using positive-valenced information. This study adds to the increasing corpus of information on non-verbal touch communication.

The findings show that roboaffective gadgets might improve social media connections; however, further studies must explore ethical and emotional considerations.

Perceived social purpose is linked positively with engagement frequency and emotion detection but adversely with body communication awareness.

Journal reference:
Pooja Toshniwal Paharia

Written by

Pooja Toshniwal Paharia

Pooja Toshniwal Paharia is an oral and maxillofacial physician and radiologist based in Pune, India. Her academic background is in Oral Medicine and Radiology. She has extensive experience in research and evidence-based clinical-radiological diagnosis and management of oral lesions and conditions and associated maxillofacial disorders.

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