Internet Communication Versus Face-to-face
Interaction in Quality of Life
Paul S. N. Lee
Accepted: 29 December 2009 / Published online: 31 October 2010
Ó Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010
Abstract This study seeks to understand the role of the Internet in quality of life (QoL).
Speciﬁcally, it examines the question of whether Internet communication serves, like face-
to-face interactions, to enhance quality of life. It is hypothesized that the use of the Internet
for interpersonal communication can improve quality of life among Internet users, just like
face-to-face communication in everyday life. Sample survey data were collected in four
Chinese cities, namely Hong Kong, Taipei, Beijing, and Wuhan, to serve as replicates to
test the hypothesis. The Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS) of Diener (1984) was used to
measure quality of life in the four cities. It was found that contrary to our expectation,
Internet communication cannot predict quality of life while face-to-face communication
with friends and family members can. The result was the same across the four Chinese
cities. Possible reasons for this ﬁnding are examined and discussed.
Keywords Quality of life Internet communication Interpersonal relationship
Satisfaction with life Social support Social interactions
Communication is crucial to people’s well-being. ‘‘To communicate is to be human’’ is a
for communication students. Humans, like other organisms, cannot survive without
interacting with their environment. Getting information from outside is crucial to one’s
existence and growth. Society is a sum of relationships which are formed with the aid of
communication. Our relationships at home, work, and play affect our state of well-being.
P. S. N. Lee (&) L. Leung V. Lo
School of Journalism and Communication, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin, Hong Kong
School of Communication, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China
School of Journalism and Communication, Huazhong University of Science & Technology,
Soc Indic Res (2011) 100:375–389
Poor relationships are a source of pain while amiable relationships are a source of joy.
Wellman and Wortley (1990) found that strong social ties usually lead to better social
outcomes than weak ties. Contacts with neighbors, friends, and family, and participation in
social groups, have been found to improve people’s level of social support, fulﬁllment of
their own relationships, making sense of life, self-esteem, commitment to communities,
and psychological and physical well-being (Cohen and Wills 1985; Diener et al. 1999;
Putnam 1995, 2000; Thoits 1983; Williams et al. 1981).
2 Internet for Interpersonal Communication
With advanced information and communication technologies (ICTs), especially the
Internet, many see great potential in the use of mediated communication in broadening
people’s social experiences and involvement which will further strengthen social ties. As
the Internet allows people to communicate with family members, friends, coworkers, and
strangers in distant places, across cultures and without time constraints, it can help to
strengthen people’s social relationships and form new relationships (Parks and Roberts
1998). A study in 2006 showed that nine in ten American teens (aged 12–17) were wired,
and 89% of them used the Internet to send or read email while 75% sent or received instant
messages. However, face-to-face time still surpassed screen time for teens. The average
youth aged 12–17 reported spending 10.3 h a week with friends doing social activities
outside of school and about 7.8 h talking with friends via technology such as telephone,
email, instant messaging (IM) or text messaging (Lenhart et al. 2007).
Some studies have shown that social disengagement is associated with poor quality of
life and diminished physical and psychological health. When people have more social
involvement, they are happier and healthier, both physically and mentally (Cohen and
Wills 1985; Gove and Geerken 1977; Putnam 1995). Putnam (2000) points out that
American social capital declined from the mid-1960s to the 1990s but, at the same time,
many forms of Internet services, including instant messaging, chat rooms, multiuser games,
and auctions, serve to build ‘‘virtual social capital’’ for Internet users. With stronger
relationships and social support, one’s psychological well-being and perceived quality of
life can be expected to improve.
On the basis of this expectation, Kraut et al. (1998) conducted a study to examine the
social and psychological impact of the Internet on a sample in 1995–96 during their ﬁrst
1–2 years online. They used longitudinal data to examine the effects of the Internet on
social involvement and psychological well-being. Quite unexpectedly, they found that
greater use of the Internet was associated with declines in participants’ communication
with family members in the household, declines in the size of their social circle, and
increases in depression and loneliness.
The authors offered two explanations for their ﬁndings. The ﬁrst is time displacement
and the second is the displacement of strong ties by the use of the Internet. The ﬁrst
explanation conceives that the time that people devote to using the Internet might sub-
stitute for time previously spent engaging in social activities. The Internet is similar to
other passive entertainment activities such as watching TV or listening to music, which
could lead to social withdrawal and a decline in psychological well-being. However, Kraut
and his colleagues found that interpersonal communication was the dominant use of the
Internet among the sample studied. Internet use does not seem to displace people’s
engagement in interaction with others.
376 P. S. N. Lee et al.
They turned to the displacement of strong ties for an explanation for their ﬁndings. They
considered that by using the Internet, people were substituting poorer quality social rela-
tionships for better relationships, i.e., substituting weak ties for strong ones (Granovetter
1973; Krackhardt 1994). Many of the online relationships, especially the new ones, were
found to be weak ties rather than stronger ties. Online friendships were likely to be more
limited than friendships supported by physical proximity. They reasoned that online friends
were not embedded in the same day-to-day environment, and were less likely to understand
the context for conversation, making discussion more difﬁcult (Clark 1996). Moreover,
online groups were usually devoted to speciﬁc topics of interest, narrowing the scope of
discussion and support. Support groups for real life problems were relatively much fewer
online. In other words, the authors considered that the ‘‘quality’’ and ‘‘support’’ of Internet
communication were inadequate compared with ofﬂine interpersonal communication to
enhance psychological well-being.
A 3-year follow-up of 208 respondents of their study in 1998, interestingly showed that
negative effects dissipated (Kraut et al. 2002). They found that depressive symptoms
signiﬁcantly increased with Internet use during the ﬁrst period, but signiﬁcantly declined
with Internet use during the second period. They also reported a second longitudinal study
in 1998–99 of 406 new computer and television purchasers. This sample generally expe-
rienced positive effects of using the Internet on communication, social involvement, and
well-being. However, using the Internet predicted better outcomes for extroverts and those
with more social support, but worse outcomes for introverts and those with less support.
The authors offered three explanations for the differential effects of Internet commu-
nication in the two periods and the two studies: maturation of participants between the
early and late phases of the study, differences in samples between the two studies, and
changes in the Internet itself. Among the three explanations, they considered a change of
the Internet as the most parsimonious explanation. They argued that from 1995 to 1998, the
number of Americans with access to the Internet at home more than quadrupled. As a
result, many participants’ close family members and friends were likely to have obtained
Internet access. The ease with which people could communicate with their strong ties
increased with the transformation of the Internet into a ‘‘hospitable’’ place (Kraut et al.
In a study done in 2004, Boase and his colleagues (2006) found that even with the
ﬂourishing of the Internet, people still commonly communicated with their social ties in
traditional ways, in addition to the use of the Internet for social communication. They
found that in-person encounters were most widely used, followed by landline phone, cell
phone, email, and IM communication. Far from being a medium that connects weaker ties
in superﬁcial ways, email was used more for maintaining core rather than signiﬁcant ties.
Core ties are more often relied upon for seeking help than signiﬁcant ties. But signiﬁcant
ties are composed of people more than acquaintances and can, at times, become important
players in help-seeking. Boase and his colleagues (2006) found that people not only
socialized online, but they incorporated the Internet into seeking information, exchanging
advice, and making decisions. Americans may now have only one or two extremely close
relationships, but dozens of core and signiﬁcant ties in the ‘‘networked’’ community. Four
years later in 2008, a similar study on social isolation and new technology found that
in-person contact remained the dominant means of communication with core members;
emails, instant messaging, and social networking websites supplemented this dominant
mode of communication (Hampton et al. 2009).
In another study on the role of the Internet in families, it was found that 33% of Internet
users said that the Internet had improved their connections to friends ‘‘a lot’’, and 23% said
Internet Communication Vs. Face-to-face 377
it had increased the quality of their communication with family members by a similar
amount. Young people in particular took advantage of the social side of the Internet.
Nearly half (49%) of the 18–29 year olds said that the Internet had improved their con-
nections to friends a lot. On the other hand, 19% of employed Internet users said that the
Internet had increased the amount of time they spent working in home (Wellman et al.
3 Use of the Internet for Interpersonal Communication and Quality of Life
The present study seeks to understand the role of Internet communication in quality of life.
Speciﬁcally, it examines the question of whether Internet communication can replace face-
to-face interaction in enhancing quality of life. It is hypothesized that ‘‘the use of the
Internet for interpersonal communication can improve quality of life among Internet users,
just like face-to-face communication.’’
The hypothesis is diagrammatically presented in Fig. 1.
Sample survey data were collected in four Chinese cities, namely Hong Kong, Taipei,
Beijing and Wuhan, to serve as replicates to test the hypothesis. These four cities were
chosen for three reasons. First, they are Chinese societies which differ from American
society with regard to culture. These samples are good for a test of the generalizability of
theories about Internet communication in different cultural settings. Second, Hong Kong
and Taipei are more economically advanced than Beijing and Wuhan. A comparison of the
differences in results can shed light on the impact of stages of economic development on
the role of the Internet. Third, when the study was conducted in 2002–03, all four societies
had quite a good penetration of the Internet and computers. The survey showed that more
than 60% of residents in all four cities already had computers, and half or more of them had
used the Internet at the time that the study was conducted (see Table 1).
Previous studies have shown that Internet users tend to communicate with people they
have already known rather than with strangers. For example, a study (Leung 2001) on the use
of ICQ showed that the majority of users reported that they chatted with classmates (41.9%)
most often, followed by ordinary friends (34.1%), boy/girlfriends and family members,
cyber friends, and anonymous contacts. A study on Internet ties (Boase et al. 2006) also
Use of the Internet
Fig. 1 Hypothesized relationship between use of internet for interpersonal communication, face-to-face
communication, and quality of life
378 P. S. N. Lee et al.
found that the relationships maintained through online communication are only rarely with
an entirely new set of individuals. Instead, Internet users usually communicate with the same
set of friends and family members. With the growth of the Internet, more strong ties will be
present online. The four Chinese cities, with more than 60% of Internet penetration at the
time they were studied, should have had a reasonably good number of family members and
friends as strong ties with whom Internet users could communicate online. It avoids the
problem of the lack of strong ties in the initial stage of Internet penetration as in Kraut et al.’s
study in 1995–96. After controlling the Internet penetration factor, we should expect to see a
positive impact of using Internet communication on people’s psychological well-being and
perceived quality of life, like the ﬁndings of Kraut’s study in 1998 (Kraut et al. 2000).
The four Chinese cities under study, namely Hong Kong, Taipei, Beijing, and Wuhan,
vary not only in size, but also in levels of development. Hong Kong has a population of
approximately 7 million, and the average monthly per capita income in 2006 was
US$1,344 (RMB$10,713). Taipei has a population of 2.6 million and the average monthly
income per capita was US$1,099 (RMB$8,759) in 2006. Beijing has a population of
approximately 16 million. Its size ﬂuctuates daily due to the out- and inﬂux of people to
and from various parts of China and the world. In 2006, the average monthly per capita
income of Beijing’s residents was US$178 (RMB$1,419). Wuhan, a city on the Yangtze
River in Central China, has a population of 8.9 million. Its monthly per capita income in
2006 was US$113 (RMB$904) (Ni 2007, pp. 682–685,687; Hong Kong Government 2008;
Department of Budget, Accounting and Statistics 2008; Beijing City Administration Portal
2009; Wuhan Statistics Bureau 2008). In terms of economic development, Taiwan and
Hong Kong are close, while Beijing and Wuhan trail behind.
4.1 Sample and Sampling Procedure
In 2002–03, the investigators of the four cities conducted household surveys with proba-
bility samples to examine the uses of ICTs in the four cities, and the opinions of the
residents about a series of questions, including quality of life, social support, uses of the
Internet, displacement of media, leisure activities, etc.. In the present study, the authors
focus on the role of Internet communication vis-a
-vis face-to-face communication in
quality of life in the four cities.
In all four places, respondents aged 15 or above were sampled. In each household, the
person who most recently had his or her birthday was requested for a face-to-face inter-
view. The questionnaires issued in all four cities were standardized with some modiﬁcation
based on the local situation. For example, Taipei, Beijing, and Wuhan used very similar
categories of education which include ‘‘No Education, Primary, Junior High, Senior High,
Technical, and Tertiary or Above’’. Hong Kong, however, used the categories of
Table 1 % Ownership of computer & use of internet in 4 Chinese cities, 2002–03 (N)
Hong Kong Taipei Beijing Wuhan
Computer ownership 75% (524) 87% (456) 67% (657) 62% (682)
Internet subscription 66% (461) 78% (410) 51% (487) 50% (549)
Use of internet 56% (388) 63% (328) 54% (508) 71% (776)
Internet Communication Vs. Face-to-face 379
‘‘No Education, Primary, Form 1 to Form 3, Form 4 to Form 5, Matriculation, Tertiary or
Above’’. The reason for this is that Hong Kong inherited a British education system which
had only 5 years of secondary education and 2 years of a matriculation course before
entering university. Similar modiﬁcations were made by different cities in the categories of
Occupation, Income, and Housing Type to suit the local situation and usage. The ques-
tionnaires for the four cities were very similar, and efforts were made to allow for
comparison as far as possible. Pre-tests were done before interviewing the sampled
In Hong Kong, data were gathered from a probability sample of 1,192 respondents,
using a face-to-face structured interview during the months of October to December 2002.
Respondents were eligible members of randomly generated households from the records of
the Census and Statistics Department of Hong Kong. Interviewers were trained university
students. A total of 238 households were discarded when interviewers found the premises
to be vacant, used for non-residential purposes, found no one at home after three visits, or
encountered foreigners who were ineligible for this study. Of the 954 qualiﬁed households,
696 successfully completed the questionnaires, resulting in a 73% response rate.
In Taipei, the multistage cluster sampling method was used. With the aid of the Sta-
tistical Bureau of Taiwan’s Executive Council, the investigator randomly sampled 1,350
households from various areas of Taipei listed in the census record. Then 1,350 individuals
were randomly selected from the name list of people aged between 15 and 65 in these
households. The respondents were interviewed face-to-face between November 2002 and
January 2003. Sixty university students were hired to conduct the interviews. Due to
inaccuracies in the Statistical Bureau’s record, many of the sampled respondents could not
be located. Finally, the survey succeeded in interviewing 528 respondents at a response
rate of 39%.
In Beijing, multistage cluster sampling was also used. The investigator ﬁrst randomly
selected four of the six districts of Beijing city, 1,500 households were then randomly
selected from the four districts. The survey in Beijing was conducted in January 2003. The
response rate was 67% with 998 respondents successfully interviewed.
In Wuhan, the same multistage cluster sampling method was used. In each of the seven
districts of Wuhan city, two small residential areas and one work unit (including schools)
were randomly selected. 176 people were then chosen from these sampled clusters, except
in Hongshan District where 194 people were selected. A total sample of 1,250 people was
obtained. The survey was conducted between December 2002 and January 2003. The
interviewers successfully completed 1,099 questionnaires with a response rate of 88%.
In the study, we used the Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS) of Diener (1984) to measure
quality of life in the four cities. The 7-point scale ranges from ‘‘strongly disagree’’ to
‘‘strongly agree’’. It contains ﬁve items which include: ‘‘In most ways my life is close to
my ideal’’, ‘‘The conditions of my life are excellent’’, ‘‘I am satisﬁed with my life’’, ‘‘So far
I have gotten the important things I want in life’’, and ‘‘If I could live my life over, I would
change almost nothing’’.
The measure for the use of the Internet for interpersonal communication is a 5-point
Likert-type scale composed of three items. They are ‘‘using the Internet to communicate
with people you didn’t know before’’, ‘‘using the Internet to communicate with people you
know’’, ‘‘using the Internet to disclose things deep in your heart’’. The answers range from
‘‘never’’ to ‘‘very often’’. The Cronbach’s Alpha is 0.77. The measure for face-to-face
380 P. S. N. Lee et al.
communication is also a 5-point Likert-type scale containing the question ‘‘how often do
you talk to your family or friend for 10 min or more?’’ The answers range from ‘‘never’’ to
5 Results and Discussion
5.1 Sample Proﬁle
Table 2 shows the demographic proﬁle of the samples in the four cities. The Wuhan
sample contained a larger proportion of youngsters than the other three cities. Fifty-four
percent of the Wuhan respondents were aged 15–24, while the proportion of the same
group in the other three cities ranged from 20% to 25%. Gender distribution in the four
cities was quite even, with a few more female respondents in Hong Kong (53%) and Taipei
(54%). With regard to marital status, 65% of Wuhan respondents were single (including
divorced and widowed), while approximately 40% of respondents in the other three cities
were single. In terms of education, Wuhan respondents had the highest proportion of
university/tertiary graduates (48%) and Hong Kong had the lowest (24%) among the four
cities. Overall, the samples of the four cities over-represent, to a certain extent, the highly
educated and young people.
Table 2 Distribution of age,
gender, marital status, & educa-
tional levels in four cities
15–24 (%) 20 21 25 54
25–34 (%) 22 18 25 19
35–44 (%) 30 22 21 13
45–54 (%) 20 24 16 10
55 ? (%) 9 15 12 4
Total N 696 528 937 1,099
M (%) 47 46 51 48
F (%) 53 54 49 52
Total N 696 528 969 1,094
Single (%) 41 40 39 65
Total N 692 527 925 1,085
No schooling/kindergarten (%) 1 1 1 1
Primary (%) 13 10 3 1
Junior secondary (%) 20 7 15 8
Senior secondary (%) 33 27 26 23
Matriculation/technical (%) 9 21 24 20
Tertiary/university (%) 24 35 31 48
Total N 693 523 998 1,084
Internet Communication Vs. Face-to-face 381
5.2 The Use of the Internet for Interpersonal Communication
It is interesting to note that among different age groups, those aged 15–24 constitute the
highest proportion of people using the Internet for interpersonal communication. Of the
28.5% respondents who most often or often use the Internet for interpersonal communi-
cation, 19.1% belong to the 15–24 age group (Table 3). Single and highly educated people
also use online communication much more often than married and lower educated people.
Among the people (28.4%) who very often or often use the Internet for interpersonal
communication, 23.7% are single, and 16.6% have received tertiary/university education.
Gender, however, does not make much difference in the frequency of Internet use for
interpersonal communication; 15.0% of male and 13.4% of female respondents most often
or often engage in online communication (Table 3).
Table 4 shows that use of the Internet for interpersonal communication in the four
Chinese cities is quite common. In all four cities, more than half of Internet users some-
times or often/very often use the Internet for communicating with people. Wuhan (76%)
and Beijing (67%) tend to have more people using the Internet for this purpose than Hong
Kong (52%) and Taipei (51%) (Table 4). As regards face-to-face communication, over
80% of people in the four cities sometimes or often/very often engage in this mode of
communication. Hong Kong and Taipei even have more than 90% of people at least
Table 3 Demographic groups
communicating online most
often/often (aggregate sample of
Demographic groups % n
Age group (total N = 1,436)
10–14 0.1 2
15–24 19.1 274
25–34 6.6 96
35–44 1.4 20
45–54 1.1 15
55? 0.2 3
Sub-total 28.5 410
Gender (total N = 1,445)
M 15.0 217
F 13.4 195
Sub-total 28.4 412
Marital status (total N = 1,422)
Single (including divorced/widowed) 23.7 337
Married 4.7 66
Sub-total 28.4 403
Education (total N = 1,431)
No schooling/kindergarten 0 1
Primary 0 0
Junior secondary 1.3 19
Senior secondary 6.1 87
Matriculation/technical 4.4 63
Tertiary/university 16.6 237
Sub-total 28.4 407
382 P. S. N. Lee et al.
sometimes engage in face-to-face interaction with family members or friends for 10 min or
5.3 Insigniﬁcant or Negative Impact of Online Communication on Quality of Life
Contrary to our expectation, Table 5 indicates that Internet use for interpersonal com-
munication cannot predict people’s quality of life, while face-to-face interaction with
friends and family members can. The result was the same across the four Chinese cities.
In a regression analysis of the aggregate data of all four cities, we found that the use of
the Internet for interpersonal communication has a negative impact on people’s quality of
life. The b was -.40 signiﬁcant at .001 level. A further analysis of each of the four cities
shows the same negative effect for Hong Kong and an insigniﬁcant effect for the other
three cities. The use of the Internet for interpersonal communication has a negative impact
on Hong Kong people’s quality of life with b of -.56 which is signiﬁcant at .001 level. The
betas in the analysis of Taipei, Beijing, and Wuhan are insigniﬁcant but all show negative
directions (see Table 5).
On the other hand, the frequency of talking to family or friends face-to-face for 10 min
or more has a positive impact on quality of life. Regression analyses on aggregate data of
four cities, or data for individual cities all show positive effects with signiﬁcance at the
level of .001 or .01 (Table 5).
Based on these results, we can conclude that the use of the Internet for interpersonal
communication cannot replace face-to-face communication in improving quality of life.
The hypothesis is not supported.
An obvious explanation is that online communication is different from ofﬂine face-to-
face communication. Kraut et al.’s explanation of ‘‘quality’’ difference, especially the
scarcity of strong ties in Internet communication, may be invoked to account for the
negative effect of online interpersonal communication on one’s perceived quality of life.
As communication is not deep, relationships formed or maintained on the Internet will not
be strong. Hence, Internet communication cannot play a positive role in improving quality
of life among people.
However, as previously mentioned, the four Chinese cities under study had relatively
high penetration of the Internet at the time of study in 2002–03 and there should be a
reasonable number of strong ties on the Internet. A small number of strong ties may not be
a primary reason for the negative effect of Internet communication on the psychological
well-being of these four Chinese societies. In addition, when we ran a regression of the
Table 4 Use of internet for interpersonal communication & frequency of talking face-to-face with family
members/friends for 10 min or more in four Chinese cities (N)
Hong Kong Taipei Beijing Wuhan
Internet Communication Vs. Face-to-face 383
item ‘‘using the Internet to disclose things deep in your heart’’ on quality of life, we found
that the impact was still signiﬁcantly negative (b =-.25, SE = .08, signiﬁcant at .001
level). People who often disclose things deep in their heart on the Internet tend to expe-
rience low quality of life. In other words, the lack of ‘‘depth’’ of communication or strong
ties on the Internet may not be a reason for the negative effect of online communication on
quality of life either. The negative ﬁnding shows that despite relatively high penetration of
the Internet and the presence of strong ties, the use of the Internet for interpersonal
communication cannot increase people’s psychological well-being in the four Chinese
The adverse effect of online interpersonal communication on quality of life may be due
to factors other than lacking strong ties or depth of communication on the Internet.
It is possible that the use of the Internet for interpersonal communication is a result of
certain characteristics of the Internet users. For example, those who always use the Internet
for interpersonal communication may be a group of socially isolated or disadvantaged
people who have experienced isolation or exclusion in face-to-face interaction in everyday
life. If this is really the case, we should expect to see a negative correlation between the use
of the Internet for interpersonal communication and social interactions or social support.
The less social interaction or social support one has, the more likely one will engage in
online interpersonal communication.
In the data subsets of Wuhan and Hong Kong, the researchers had included questions
pertaining to social interactions and social support. We can, therefore, use the data to
investigate further if the frequent users of online communication are composed primarily
of socially isolated and disadvantaged people. The investigators of Beijing and Taipei did
not include questions about social interactions and social support in their survey because
these questions were not designed as core questions for the comparative study; investi-
gators of the four cities had the option of using or not using these questions. We combined
the relevant data of Wuhan and Hong Kong to form an index of ‘‘social interactions’’ and
The index of ‘‘social interactions’’ consists of four items: ‘‘you have social interactions
with others in leisure time’’, ‘‘your leisure helps you develop close relations with other
people’’, ‘‘your leisure helps you understand other people better’’, and ‘‘during leisure time,
you will keep company with others’’. The answers to these items are given on a 5-point
scale ranging from ‘‘almost no all the time’’ to ‘‘almost yes all the time’’. The index of
social support is composed of ﬁve items. They are ‘‘you have someone who will listen to
Table 5 Regression of internet use for interpersonal communication & face-to-face communication on
quality of life
USE of internet for interpersonal
FREQUENCY talking face-to-face to
friends/relatives for 10 min or more
b SE b SE
Quality of life (Satisfaction with Life Scale)
All cities -.40*** .09 .77*** .07
Hong Kong -.56** .20 .76*** .13
Taipei -.13 .21 .41** .16
Beijing -.03 .21 .66*** .15
Wuhan -.03 .15 .56*** .11
** p \ .01, *** p \ .001
384 P. S. N. Lee et al.
you when needed’’, ‘‘you have someone with whom you can talk about your private life
and problems’’, ‘‘you have someone to comfort you when needed’’, ‘‘you have someone to
advise you when needed’’, and ‘‘you have someone to give you suggestions to solve
problems’’. The answers to these items are given on a 5-point scale ranging from ‘‘never’’
to ‘‘all the time’’. The Cronbach’s Alpha for the social interaction index is 0.75 and that for
social support is 0.88.
A correlation test shows that the relationships between online interpersonal commu-
nication and ‘‘social interactions’’ and ‘‘social support’’ are positive instead of negative.
The more social interactions and support one has ofﬂine, the more likely one will use the
Internet for interpersonal communication. The socially isolated or disadvantaged are less
likely to engage in online interpersonal communication. For the Hong Kong data, the
Pearson r of online interpersonal communication and social interactions is 0.25 which is
statistically signiﬁcant at 0.01 level. The relationship between online interpersonal com-
munication and social support is 0.17, which is also statistically signiﬁcant at 0.01 level.
For the Wuhan data, the result is similar. The Pearson r of online interpersonal commu-
nication and social interactions is 0.21, signiﬁcant at 0.01 level, while the correlation
between online communication and social support is 0.22, signiﬁcant at 0.01 level
These results show that socially isolated people or people having little social support do
not always engage in online interpersonal communication. On the contrary, people who
enjoy social interactions and social support ofﬂine are more likely to use the Internet for
interpersonal communication. This ﬁnding indicates that the negative impact of online
interpersonal communication on quality of life cannot be attributed to the Internet users
who are socially isolated or lacking social support because these people do not use the
Internet for interpersonal communication as often as those who have social interactions and
Another possible explanation for the negative impact of online interpersonal commu-
nication on quality of life can be sought from the nature of online communication vis-a
According to Birdwhistell (1970), about 65 percent of the social meaning of a situation
in a two-person setting is conveyed nonverbally. A very large part of information in any
human communication is derived from nonverbal cues. Without sufﬁcient support of
nonverbal cues, Internet communication cannot fully perform the function of face-to-face
communication. In face-to-face communication, the exchange of emotions occurs without
one’s awareness of it. These emotions, be they love, hatred, or anger, elicit a sense of
warmth and ‘‘human-ness’’ which are conducive to deeper understanding and development
of relationships among the communicating partners. The Internet cannot convey the
Table 6 Correlations among use of internet for interpersonal communication, social interactions, social
support, & quality of life (Pearson r)
Hong Kong Wuhan
Use of internet for interpersonal communication 0.25** 0.17** 0.21** 0.22**
Quality of life 0.08** 0.33** 0.29** 0.14**
** p \ .01
Internet Communication Vs. Face-to-face 385
‘‘warmth’’ of face-to-face communication. Maintaining good human relationships is
important to people’s lives; it is a form of social capital which can help or obstruct people’s
personal growth and well-being.
There is a set of ‘‘cue-ﬁltered-out’’ theories (Culnan and Markus 1987), which point to
the lack of nonverbal cues, emotional information, and reduced interactivity on the Internet
as reasons for the impersonality of online communication (Daft and Lengel 1984, 1986;
Rice 1984; Short et al. 1976; Siegel et al. 1986). Due to the inadequacy of nonverbal cues,
Internet communication is less socially oriented and personal than face-to-face commu-
nication. These theories explain well the less frequent use of online communication among
the socially isolated and disadvantaged, because online communication is less apt for
social interactions and the build-up of social support. The Internet cannot serve as a
substitute for face-to-face communication.
Face-to-face communication demands the effort and engagement of participants to
succeed and be maintained. The efforts made by participants indicate certain degrees of
respect and appreciation of the communicating partners. Internet communication, on the
other hand, can be interrupted at any moment or conducted with intermittent delays.
Internet users are not required to have immediate responses, and mind their facial or
nonverbal expressions when they are online. These differences between online and ofﬂine
interpersonal communication contribute to different types of social interactions and sup-
port, and subsequently perceptions of life quality.
Meanwhile, it should be noted that there is a positive relationship between quality of life
and social interactions as well as social support. For the Hong Kong data, the Pearson r
between social interactions and QoL is 0.08 which, albeit small, is signiﬁcant at the 0.01
level. The Pearson r between social support and QoL is 0.33, which is quite high, and also
signiﬁcant at the 0.01 level. The result in the Wuhan data is similar. The Pearson r between
social interactions and QoL is 0.29 while that between social support and QoL is 0.14. Both
are signiﬁcant at 0.01 level (Table 6).
The negative impact of online interpersonal communication on quality of life may be
explained by the fact that people who enjoy social interactions and support ofﬂine, often
engage in online interpersonal communication for some reasons, such as supplementing
ofﬂine interactions or communicating with strangers. However, they ﬁnd such online
communication less satisfying in terms of providing social interactions or support like that
which they have obtained ofﬂine. As a result, the online users have a low rating on the
impact of online interpersonal communication on quality of life.
In conclusion, this study shows that the use of the Internet for interpersonal communication
is not the same as ofﬂine face-to-face communication in enhancing quality of life. Online
communication has an adverse effect on people’s perceived life quality. The relative lack
of strong ties or in-depth quality in Internet communication cannot be a reason for the
negative effect of online communication on life quality because the four Chinese societies
already had high penetration of the Internet and subsequently a good presence of strong ties
when the study was done. Moreover, a test of the predictive relationship between ‘‘dis-
closing things deep in their heart on the Internet’’ and quality of life still shows an adverse
effect. This indicates that the presence of ‘‘in-depth quality’’ is not essential to improving
perceived quality of life.
386 P. S. N. Lee et al.
The authors propose that the absence of nonverbal cues, lack of warmth, and less
demand for engagement in Internet communication, which results in impersonality, shal-
low interactions, and difﬁculty in building social support, are reasons for the negative
contribution of online communication to perceived quality of life. A further analysis shows
that ofﬂine social interactions and support are positively related to perceived life quality. If
online communication can enhance social interactions and support, its impact on quality of
life should be positive, and people having less ofﬂine social interactions and support should
want to engage in online communication to compensate for their relative lack of ofﬂine
social interactions and support.
The data analysis, however, shows that this is not the case. The socially isolated and
disadvantaged are found to be less likely to use the Internet for interpersonal communi-
cation. In other words, the socially isolated and disadvantaged do not ﬁnd online com-
munication useful for social interactions and the building up of social support. In a
nutshell, the negative impact of online communication on quality of life may be explained
by its relatively weak role in enhancing social interactions and social support due to its lack
of nonverbal cues, emotional information, and interactive rigor compared with face-to-face
Having said that, this does not mean that Internet communication cannot be used to
develop close relationships or social support. For example, Walther (1996) argues that
computer mediated communication can be interpersonal, just like face-to-face commu-
nication, when users have time to exchange information, build impressions, and compare
values. He further argues that computer-mediated communication is ‘‘hyperpersonal’’
when users can create impressions and manage relationships more positively than they
might be able to conduct face-to-face communication, such as to selectively self-present
and edit, to construct and reciprocate representations of their partners without the
interference of environmental reality. However, what Walther describes are exceptions
rather than rules in common people’s use of the Internet for interpersonal communica-
tion. In general, under normal circumstances, people engage in online communication in
a sub-interpersonal, if not impersonal, manner. The ﬁnding of the negative role of online
communication on life quality in the present study primarily addresses the general use of
the Internet under normal circumstances. The inadequacy of the Internet in building up
social support and substituting the face-to-face interactions, which are rich with cues,
seems to be the main reason for the adverse impact of online communication on per-
ceived life quality.
As the ﬁnding of a negative impact of online communication on quality of life is
consistent across all four Chinese cities, we may conclude that level of social and eco-
nomic development does not have a signiﬁcant impact on the use and role of new com-
munication technology in improving quality of life. It is likely that once a modern
technology has become affordable and accessible to the common people, the level of social
and economic development will no longer constitute an obstacle for the use of that
technology. After reaching certain level of penetration, modern technologies, such as
television and the Internet, may have a class-leveling effect on society. A digital divide
appears only when the technology is not accessible to some due to resource constraints
and/or technological illiteracy. In the case of the Internet, the cost for accessibility and
demand for technological literacy are reasonably low, particularly when it is widely
available in schools and public libraries. The widespread use of the Internet in the four
Chinese societies overcomes the constraints imposed by different levels of development,
without giving special advantages to the more developed Hong Kong and Taiwan, and
harming the less developed Beijing and Wuhan in the use of the Internet in improving life
Internet Communication Vs. Face-to-face 387
quality. All four Chinese cities exhibit the same adverse effect of online communication on
perceived quality of life.
This ﬁnding helps to highlight the importance of social interactions on a personal basis
in human societies. Even with more development in visual communication online, such as
MSN and Skype, non-mediated face-to-face communication and interpersonal touch will
remain important in developing long-term relationships and mutual support among people.
The present study contributes to alerting quality of life researchers, despite the many
wonders of modern technologies, to pay attention to the basic fabric of society—inter-
personal relationships—and examine people’s daily life interactions and social support
This study has its limitations. It does not include psychological and social variables such
as personality, self-esteem, motivation, isolation, alienation, ties, and social capital, nor the
variables related to people’s daily life in work, study, and leisure. Because of this deﬁ-
ciency, this study is limited in arriving at a more comprehensive understanding of the role
of Internet communication in a wide variety of people’s daily activities. It is proposed that
further studies should include these variables, and monitor closely the impact of instant
messaging technology on ofﬂine face-to-face interactions. These authors believe that
mediated communication, in whatever form, can only approximate to daily life interactions
which are unique in their own right. Internet communication is only one among many
modes of communication facilitating the development of human relationships which are
basic to the well-being of humans.
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