Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Text Messages No Substitute for Mother’s Voice

• August 15, 2011 • 8:00 AM

A study finds girls’ stress levels decrease after speaking with mom, but not after text messaging.

For young people, text messaging is rapidly replacing talking on the phone. Parents could easily assume that typed text is the best way to stay in touch with their tech-savvy kids.

But newly published research suggests that, in times of stress, there’s no substitute for the soothing sound of mom’s voice.

That’s the conclusion of a research team led by University of Wisconsin-Madison cultural anthropologist Leslie Seltzer. In a study released last year, Seltzer and her colleagues found comforting words from mom decreased levels of cortisol (a biomarker of stress) and increased levels of oxytocin (a hormone linked to trust and kindness) in 7- to 12-year-old girls.

But was the soothing a response to their mother’s words, or simply the sound of her voice? That increasingly relevant question was explored in a follow-up experiment, which the researchers describe in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.

The study featured 68 girls between the ages of 7 and 12. They were instructed to give a talk and solve math problems “in front of an audience trained to maintain a neutral facial expression.” After this stress-inducing 15-minute session, the girls were randomly assigned to one of four groups.

Those in the first group met in person with their mothers, who provided reassurance via both conversation and touch. Girls in the second group rested alone, with no parental contact. Members of the third group spoke with their mothers over the phone. Those in the fourth group sent and received instant messages with their mothers but did not speak with them.

All the girls had their cortisol and oxytocin levels measured before and after the experiment. The results: those who had in-person interaction with their parents and those who spoke with them by phone had similarly higher levels of oxytocin and comparably low levels of cortisol.

However, those who communicated via text message had low levels of oxytocin and increased levels of cortisol, both of which were comparable to those who had no contact at all with their parents. In terms of bodily stress response, the instant messages apparently had no impact.

For Seltzer and her colleagues, this suggests that “auditory cues” rather than “the linguistic content of an exchange” promote the hoped-for hormonal response. They note that this makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, since mothers were soothing their children with words thousands of years before the advent of written communication.

The study has its limitations, of course; for one thing, it was restricted to mothers and daughters, and the girls were in a specific age range. What’s more, the researchers concede it is possible that the mothers’ lack of proficiency with text messaging may have frustrated the daughters, increasing their stress levels further.

Nevertheless, this study suggests we’re losing something by turning so heavily to text.

Reading the words “How did you do?” and hearing them are two very different things — especially if the voice in question is a familiar one and its tone conveys concern and empathy. Spoken language provides level of emotional communication words on a cell-phone screen cannot quite reach.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.


December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.


December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.


December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.


December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.


December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.


December 15 • 4:00 PM

When Charter Schools Are Non-Profit in Name Only

Some charters pass along nearly all their money to for-profit companies hired to manage the schools. It’s an arrangement that’s raising eyebrows.


December 15 • 2:00 PM

No More Space Race

A far cry from the fierce Cold War Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, exploration in the 21st century is likely to be a much more globally collaborative project.


December 15 • 12:32 PM

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.


December 15 • 12:00 PM

Gluttony and Global Warming: We’re Eating Ourselves to a Warmer Planet

Forget your car. Our obsession with beef and dairy has a far more devastating effect on the climate.


December 15 • 10:00 AM

The 2016 Presidential Race Has Already Started

And this is the most exciting part.


December 15 • 8:00 AM

The Second Life of Old iPods

Why is it that old iPods are suddenly cool—and pricey again?


December 15 • 6:00 AM

The Lifelong Consequences of Rape

The long-term psychological and physical effects of the experience are devastating. And they’re likely exacerbated by the shame our culture insists on perpetuating.


December 15 • 4:00 AM

Mating Mindset Interferes With Attempts to Stop Smoking

Taiwanese researchers find photos of attractive women put men in an immediate-gratification state of mind.


December 15 • 2:00 AM

Where Innovation Thrives

Innovation does not require an urban area or a suburban area—it can happen in the city or in a small town. What it requires is open knowledge networks and the movement of people from different places.


December 13 • 9:18 AM

The Damage Done: Can Distance Between a Mother and Daughter Be the Best Solution?

“The devastation kept me away, but the guilt kept bringing me back, ready for another round.”


December 12 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross Has Been Serially Misleading About Where Donors’ Dollars Are Going

The charity has become closely associated with one remarkable number in recent years: 91. That’s the percentage of donor dollars that goes toward services, according to organization leaders. But it’s unclear where that number comes from.


December 12 • 2:00 PM

It’s Time to Reclaim the Word ‘Recovery’

It’s empowering to say publicly that you are in recovery from addiction. But for some, recovery is a members-only club for people who are totally abstinent. That leaves most of us out in the cold.


Follow us


Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

There’s More Than One Way to Be Good at Math

Mathematical ability isn’t one single skill set; there are indeed many ways to be “good at math,” research shows.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.