Psychologists, sociologists, career advisors and etiquette gurus give short shrift to the dozens of ways the Internet savvy can "talk" and even develop lasting, effective relationships without ever being in the same room or even holding a conversation in real time with the other person.
Social-networking advocates counter that they're able to keep in touch with far more people using the Internet, at least partly because each person in a conversation can participate when, where and in whatever circumstances he or she likes.
Holding all those conversations synchronously – in person or via phone – is harder to schedule and unnecessary for most things.
Stressful or very personal topics – hiring, firing, proposing marriage, proposing business, rejecting either relationships or business (and surprise parties) – are still best handled synchronously and in person, however.
Now science is coming down on the side of the Internet.
Even the most impersonal digital means of contact delivers many of the same benefits as phone conversations or F2F meetups according to a newly published study from a clinical psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley.
Even profoundly depressed patients often reported feeling reassured, connected and cared for after receiving text messages from therapists, friends or others who appear concerned about their welfare according to research published this month by Adrian Aquilera, an assistant professor in Berkeley's School of Social Welfare.
In 2010, Aquilera set up an automated text-message service that would remind patients being treated for depression and other disorders to take their medications, track their moods and think about interactions that had a positive effect on their outlook.
Even though the messages were automated, pre-scheduled and impersonal compared to texts from friends, the daily messages checking on their progress gave patients a boost in both mood and confidence.
"When I was in a difficult situation and I received a message, I felt much better. I felt cared for and supported. My mood even improved," the paper quotes on patient in Aguilera's cognitive behavior therapy group at San Francisco General Hospital.
Texting can enhance in-person or phone conversations, but not replace them
The effect worked in conjunction with in-person group-therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy sessions, so the Internet can't do everything.
It can reach a population that suffers high stress, high rates of depression and less support than average to deal with it all, however.
The first group Aguilera signed up for the text-updates were from a CBT group made up largely of low-income Latinos suffering depression and other emotional disorders.
Many patients had trouble applying the lessons from CBT to their daily livs. They had too many problems to be able to focus on CBT techniques designed to help them change the way they think about or approach situations that cause problems and improve their problem-solving ability.
Most couldn't afford computers, or spent little time during the day online, but did have cell-phones and texting services.
The Pew Research Center’s 2011 Internet & American Life Project survey found African-Americans and Latinos text at far higher rates than whites, especially if they earned incomes of less than $30,000 per year and had not graduated from high school.
Email and other more typical 'net-based means of communication were unreliable at reaching that low-income, often Spanish-speaking population; texting was inexpensive, reliable and effective.
Though the messages only lasted a few weeks, 75 percent of those who had been receiving them asked to continue after the test period was over.
The therapeutic benefits of text aren't limited to those with low incomes, members of certain ethnic groups or even limited only to those being treated for mental or mood disorders.
Daily text messages helped asthma patients become more optimistic about their own conditions and stick more closely to their medication and treatment schedules. Patients also felt more in control of their own treatment and confident about their futures,, according to a study published in June in the British Journal of Health Psychology.
None of which means it's OK to skip the visit to the hospital and just text a friend who's seriously injured or sick, replace awkwardly intimate family conversations with quickie texts or assume a text or email can replace personal contact.
Texts – and probably other online media as well – can enhance and reinforce existing relationships and have a positive, long-term impact on the people receiving them.
The only question now, is whether – for very ill patients or business situations that are particularly touchy – it's better to go with old-fashioned, customizable smilies in ASCII or emoticon images that are more pleasing to the eye, but may not be quite as eloquent as you'd like any particular text to be.
's up 2 u, tho. Gud luk w/yr txting and commo. Rmbr, speling still counts.
Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.