That’s what a recent study in the journal, CyberPsychology & Behavior set out to determine. The study examined the levels of intimacy reported by individuals in face-to-face and computer-mediated (or “virtual”) romantic relationships in 546 participants.
The study discovered that while there was some degree of intimacy in computer-mediated relationships, stronger intimacy was reported in all participants’ face-to-face relationships. Results also indicated that individuals who had online, virtual relationships reported less intimacy in their own face-to-face relationships compared to individuals who had engaged exclusively in face-to-face relationships. The researchers suggested that people may turn to virtual relationships after having experienced “challenges” in face-to-face relationships.
There were a few serious confounds to this study, however, that call the researchers’ results into question.
The first is a traditional sampling error. If you’re going to compare two groups, researchers typically try and ensure that the groups are homogeneous — that is, they are alike in nature, number and composition. Two confounds rear their head here. First, twice as many females were sampled in both groups than males. Second, out of 546 participants, only 15% of the participants were in the computer-mediated (or “virtual”) relationship group. For it to be a stronger comparison, that percentage in both cases should have been much closer to 50%. There is virtually no information regarding how the subjects were obtained and what kind of population they were derived from.
The other serious confound is something I’m not certain the researchers even considered — whether their measures have any validity to measure the strength of an online relationship. Certainly Rubin’s Love Scale, developed in 1970, is perhaps not the ideal candidate to measure something that didn’t exist in that form at the time of its development. Some of the items in Rubin’s scale specifically pulls for physical intimacy, rather than emotional or other kinds of intimacy. And so what actually defines intimacy, and “strong intimacy” over other kinds is also a good question. Sternberg’s Intimacy Sub-scale, originally published in 1990, also is largely before the time of “virtual relationships.” While having less items with an emphasis on physical intimacy, it, like the Rubin scale, pre-supposes a certain type of traditional relationship.
It may very well be that online intimacy is qualitatively different than face-to-face intimacy, and that traditional scales of this nature cannot tap into these differences. Unfortunately, that alternative hypothesis was not offered by the researchers.
So take this research with a grain of salt. Do people have intimate, strong online relationships? Absolutely. Are they qualitatively different than face-to-face relationships? Very likely. Have we measured this difference and described it adequately yet? No, not yet.
Reference: Scott, V.M., Mottarella, K.E., & Lavooy, M.J. (2006). Does virtual intimacy exist? A brief exploration into reported levels of intimacy in online relationships. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 9:759-761.