Instant messaging can't compete with phoning mom when it comes to quelling stress. A new study says hearing mom's voice soothes in ways that texting simply can't.
Just talking to mom reduced levels of cortisol, a stress biomarker, and increased oxytocin, a key hormone related to healthy relationships and pleasure, according to research published this month in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior by scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Instant-messaging on the computer didn't change the level of either hormone. It was similar, in terms of comfort, to no contact at all.
"We conclude that the comforting sound of a familiar voice is responsible for the hormonal differences observed and, hence, that similar differences may be seen in other species using vocal cues to communicate," the researchers wrote.
Earlier studies had shown that speech between mothers and daughters is comparable to physical touch in its ability to decrease measures of the salivary cortisol, "a hormone that tends to increase after a challenging or stressful event." But it's more than just contact with mother, says the study, which compared voice contact with instant messaging. It was conversation.
"The study suggests that mom's voice — its tones and intonations and rhythms, known formally as prosodics — trigger soothing effects, rather than what she specifically says," the study authors told Wired magazine.
The researchers screened out girls who had especially difficult family histories or who didn't get along well with their mothers. Then they recruited 68 girls between the ages of 7-and-a-half and 12, who filled out questionnaires on their relationships with their mothers, then rested to get used to the lab environment. Next, they were given the Trier Social Stress Test for Children, which consisted of solving verbal and math problems in front of three strangers who maintained neutral facial expressions. The task lasted 15 minutes.
At its end, the girls were randomly assigned to one of four categories: direct interaction with mom, being alone with no parental contact, talking to their moms over the phone and a final group that instant messaged with a private program between mother and daughter. The moms were told to be supportive, whether talking in person, by phone or instant messaging.
The researchers concluded that "both physical touch and auditory cues in the form of comforting speech are capable of producing a similar release of the social peptide oxytocin in human children after a stressful event and also of reducing levels of salivary cortisol, which often increases in response to social challenge." But the study showed, it said, "it is most likely the prosodic, auditory cues themselves that produce the hormonal effects observed, not the linguistic content of an exchange."