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The Importance of Physical Contact in a Digital World

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Today’s world is much more connected thanks to the internet and the devices we use to access it. This can put us in touch with family members on the other side of the world in a matter of seconds and find a community that shares our values from the comfort of our homes.

But while the digital revolution is a wonderful thing it can also be a source of stress and anxiety. It’s important to remember that we are all still human beings and as such, we have a need for community and social interaction in the physical sense.

During the pandemic, we lived in an ever-increasingly sterile world but that lack of physical contact with friends, family, and even items and products, left its mark. So just how important is physical contact with people and things in today’s digital age?

Touch starvation

Before we were all forced to avoid contact with others due to a global pandemic, the world was already becoming less physically connected. This can lead to a condition known as touch starvation, which is when a person doesn’t get as much physical contact as they are used to, or need. In essence, someone suffering from touch starvation craves physical contact but is unable to interact with others for some particular reason.

During the pandemic the reason was clear as we were forced into social distancing, meaning grandparents were unable to hug their grandchildren and vulnerable people in our communities were left missing an important aspect of their daily interactions. This can also be known as touch deprivation or skin hunger and it highlights the importance of touch and how we as people benefit from it.

Why is touch important?

Whether it be hugging a family member when you meet up or shaking hands with a coworker, touch is an important aspect of our socialising behaviour. Touching other people helps us bond with them and the largest organ in the body, our skin, sends good and bad sensations to our brains through touch. It is a vital communication device that also helps ease our stress, anxiety and depression through the release of positive hormones.

Touch is ingrained in our behaviour from birth when babies are given comfort through skin-on-skin contact with their mothers. Throughout our lives, the need for touch doesn’t disappear, and in adulthood, touch can help to regulate our sleep and digestion, improve our immune systems and even fight infections.

How to encourage more physical contact in your life

Take a digital detox and go without using your device for a select period, whether that’s a particular hour of the day or perhaps one day of the month. Detaching yourself from your devices and the internet can help you to engage in other social activities that promote human interaction.

That could be going to visit a cafe with friends, taking your family for a walk through the woods or starting a class. You can enjoy further physical contact through regular massages or haircuts and making sure that when you meet up with friends you are more tactile with them through hugging.

Interacting with pets is another way to enable more physical contact in your life. While it’s not the same as a human, engaging with our pets by playing and stroking them remains a form of interaction that can help you to stay relaxed. If you are feeling touch starvation sensations, stroking your dog or cat releases the oxytocin hormone that improves your mood and mental wellbeing.

Do digital products and services add value to our lives?

As the world has developed to be more online-based, so too have our products. From music and movies to video games, books and photos, it seems that there is a streaming service or electronic version of all of our favourites. These certainly make life more convenient and with just one or two devices you can have access to hundreds or even thousands of hours worth of content at your fingertips.

However, it can feel a bit soulless and do you really feel like you own or enjoy these things? We can also buy practically anything online these days, from clothes and shoes to toothbrushes, In the case of streaming platforms like Netflix or Disney+, whether your favourite film or TV series stays available is subject to licence agreements and viewer popularity.

Then there is the act of acquiring these books, songs, games, etc., which can be a sterile experience and often an overwhelming one due to the huge choice available. Despite the range of digital services, there is still a benefit to shopping in-store for your favourite goods.

The joy of physical ownership

Firstly, it is a more tactile experience where we can pick things up, hold them and get a feel for them. When buying in person we can decide if we like the material of our clothes, whether they fit us perfectly and what colour they actually are. Through a screen, this is next to impossible.

Secondly, there is also a general feeling of ownership when buying a physical product because you have it in your hands. Once you leave the store with it, it’s yours for as long as you want it.

A digital download might sound or look the same but does it really feel like you own it? Amazon’s Audible service is a prime example of how you can listen to an audiobook but once you stop your subscription you no longer have access to your library – this hardly seems fair.

Enjoy more physical contact in your life

Physical interaction doesn’t have to mean hugging every person you speak to, simply being in the presence of someone else can help reduce the negative impact of social isolation. Working from home is a contributor to a lack of physical interaction but it can be remedied by returning to the office more frequently. If you are stationed remotely full-time then consider entering a shared office space or even simply working from a cafe or pub from time to time to improve your social connections.

Regular exercise or hobby classes are a great way to interact with people to help rebuild a network of friends and people to interact with. Make sure to hug those already in your life, book regular massages and there is always the joys of visiting a physical shop to make the experience more tactile.

Ellen Diamond did her degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. She is interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle. 

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