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Digital hugs can be just as effective as physical hugs

In the age of rapid digital transformation and vast digital landscapes, a term like “digital hug” may sound contradictory. At a time when we’ve grown accustomed to Skype calls, WhatsApp messages, and Zoom meetings, the idea of a “hug” amidst these virtual realms might be hard to fathom. Can a screen provide the warmth, comfort, and security associated with a physical embrace?

However, a new research paper suggests that there’s more to a hug than just its physical characteristics. The study titled “Do digital hugs work? Re-embodying our social lives online with digital tact,” published in Frontiers in Psychology on August 9, 2023, dives deep into this topic.

Researchers from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) and University College Dublin discuss how the sentiments of care, consolation, and connection that define a hug don’t solely rely on the physical touch.

Studying the impact of digital hugs

The COVID-19 pandemic, with its swath of social restrictions, provided the perfect backdrop for this study. With physical interactions dwindling down, many turned to the digital world for solace.

Dr. Mark James is the first author of the paper and a postdoctoral scholar at OIST. He elaborated, “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, there was a group of people who was evidently upset about the situation.”

What became clear to the researchers was that it wasn’t merely the presence or absence of technology that influenced these experiences. The manner in which individuals approached, engaged in, and reflected upon these online interactions was pivotal. To better understand these variances, they turned to the universally relatable act of hugging.

What the researchers learned

“Any given experience can be broken down into its elements,” James noted, emphasizing that understanding these components can help in replicating the experience. To achieve this, they employed a tool known as the Mixed Reality Interaction Matrix (MRIM). This grid allows for the deconstruction of experiences into their physical, virtual, and imaginary elements.

In applying this to the act of hugging, James revealed, “What we realized was that every single component, except for one, the so-called interpersonal-physical, was translatable to the digital space.” In essence, with the right focus on specific elements, the digital space can emulate, and at times, even enhance the essence of a hug.

But like any form of interaction, the success of these “digital hugs” depends largely on one’s skills. James explained, “It’s people using the right skills in the right way at the right time that characterizes good social interactions digitally too.”

“Digital tact” is an important component

He introduced the term “digital tact” to describe the set of skills that enable individuals to excel in online social situations. He adds, “These are people attuned to the reality that even in the online space there will be existing norms and conventions.”

To truly comprehend “digital tact”, one can look at its opposite. Imagine conversing with someone over the phone, only to hear the clanking of dishes in the background. This absence of consideration for the listener’s needs, suggests an absence of “digital tact”.

Though our screens might not offer physical touch, they house embodied persons with genuine emotions and needs. In a world where digital interactions are becoming the norm, this research sheds light on the inherent meaning behind our online social interactions. It emphasizes the importance of embodied interactions even in virtual spaces.

This study has far-reaching implications. From tech designers to therapists, the insights from this research can be used to reshape online social platforms, making them more empathetic and human-centric. Looking ahead, the researchers aim to delve further into the concept of digital tact experimentally.

While “digital tact” might not solve all the challenges brought about by our increasingly digital world, it indeed signifies a move towards a more empathetic, connected digital universe. And who knows? Maybe our next online chat will feel just a bit warmer, almost like a hug.

More about hugging

Hugging is a complex and multifaceted behavior, often rooted in social, emotional, and physiological processes. Here’s an overview:


A hug is a physical act where two or more individuals place their arms around one another and hold each other closely. This can be a brief or extended act, depending on the context and the relationship between the huggers.

Historical and cross-cultural aspects

Hugging has been a part of human behavior for millennia. Ancient texts, sculptures, and paintings from different cultures all depict hugging.

However, the acceptability, frequency, and meaning of hugging vary across cultures. For instance, in some cultures, hugging is a common greeting. Others may reserve it for close family members or intimate relationships.

Social and emotional implications

People often use hugging to bond with others, from comforting someone in distress to greeting a friend. It can express a variety of emotions, from joy, love, and affection to sympathy, support, and comfort.

After conflicts, a hug can serve as a gesture of reconciliation and forgiveness. In many cultures, it’s common to hug when greeting or saying goodbye.

Physiological and psychological benefits

Hugging releases oxytocin, which leads to feelings of closeness and bonding. It is often referred to as the “love hormone” or “bonding hormone.” In addition, physical touch, including hugging, can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This can lead to feelings of relaxation and reduce anxiety.

Hugging can increase levels of serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters associated with happiness and pleasure. Physical touch can also help reduce perceived pain levels, thanks to the release of endorphins.

Therapeutic use

Therapeutic touch and hug therapy have been proposed and utilized as alternative therapies. The idea is that touch, including hugging, can promote healing and well-being.

Some therapists use hugging as part of their practice, although this is always done with clear boundaries and understanding of its implications.

In essence, hugging is a profound and versatile behavior, serving numerous emotional, social, and physiological purposes. While often positive and beneficial, it’s also crucial to approach it with sensitivity and respect for others’ boundaries.

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