What is a 'digital hug' and how does it work? - study

The COVID-19 pandemic led to social restrictions that often prevented us from hugging the ones we love. This helped some realize just how important human connection is.

 Woman looks at a tablet alone in a room (illustrative). (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Woman looks at a tablet alone in a room (illustrative).
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

A physical hug can provide consolation and support and express positive emotions. But are “digital hugs” given on social media useful when users are physically distant, even on the other side of the world?

Researchers at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) in Japan and University College Dublin have studied the matter and just published their findings in Frontiers in Psychology under the title “Do digital hugs work? Re-embodying our social lives online with digital tact.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic led to social restrictions that often prevented us from hugging the ones we love. This absence helped some realize just how important these interactions are to our sense of care and connection.

The researchers maintained that the experience of getting a digital hug and the resulting feelings of comfort and care, consolation, and “groundedness” that are felt come from a “complex interplay of a multitude of different components, most of which survive and can even be engineered in our digital spaces too.”

Dr. Mark James, the first author of the paper and a postdoctoral scholar in OIST’s Embodied Cognitive Science Unit, explained that the COVID-19 pandemic induced the team to conduct online surveys of adults over the age of 18 in the UK, Japan, and Mexico about their experiences of coping with social restrictions that abruptly and severely limited physical interactions and forced many of us to seek solace and comfort in the digital world. 

 A man working from home works on his laptop from bed. (credit: MICRO BIZ MAG/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
A man working from home works on his laptop from bed. (credit: MICRO BIZ MAG/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

“In our data, we encountered many stories. Some people appeared to be coping well, celebrating technology and its capacity to facilitate healthy social relationships during a challenging time. On the other hand,” James continued, “there was a group of people who were upset about the situation. With this as the starting point of our research, we came to realize that it wasn't the technology alone that defined the interaction. What you did before, during, and even after the interaction—such as how you reflected upon the interaction itself became relevant in shaping your online social experience.”

Physical vs. digital hug

The researchers used the physical hug as an example and examined its components within the framework called the Mixed Reality Interaction Matrix (MRIM) – a three-by-three grid that serves as a means of examining the experience of the hug or any other experience by breaking it down into its contributing physical, virtual and imaginary elements. “This doesn't imply that all the components contribute equally. In fact, having such a map allows you to start thinking about which components are more relevant and contribute more to the experience. It’s an attempt to grasp the elements of a subjective experience.”

When they used MRIM to explore the physical hug, they realized that every single component, except for one – the so-called interpersonal-physical, could be translated and even amplified to the digital space. People who could turn up the volume on other components of the interaction seemed to be able to compensate somewhat for the absence of those that are not available, like physical touch.

Generally, it takes a long time to cultivate interpersonal skills for social interactions and to do so in ways that are well suited to the environments in which they take place such as the ability to hold conversations and grasp social conventions that differ across settings. 

“It’s people using the right skills in the right way at the right time that characterizes good social interactions digitally too that in turn can generate a sense of meaning, connection, and care in these spaces,” James explained. Digital hugs are largely a matter of skills the team called “digital tact.” 

These are people attuned to the reality that even in the online space, there will be existing norms and conventions, that there are other people sharing that space, people who feel emotions and have needs, some of which will be different from yours. 

Today, a growing part of our social lives occur online, so this study reminds us that so much of the meaning in our lives comes from embodied social interaction but also gives us the tools to sustain and even improve our embodied social interactions even when we are worlds apart, James concluded.

“Ultimately, this can equip designers, educators, therapists thinkers and even society at large with both a conceptual and practical toolkit to reimagine social spaces online and how we interact within them so we might better care for those we share them with. Digital tact is unlikely to be able to address the social ills that so many of our digital platforms seem to be exacerbating, but it is certainly one step in that direction and we welcome it with open arms, maybe even a hug.”