If you leave your car sitting the garage for too long, the battery can go flat. Similarly, if we don’t maintain our friendships, they can go a bit flat too.
So just as it’s good practice to drive your car every so often and have it serviced regularly, friendships are easier to maintain with some semblance of regular contact.
What has this meant for our friendships during 2020, a year of social distancing and lockdowns? My research suggests physical separation wasn’t necessarily associated with psychological separation or the breakdown of friendships.
And that appears to be thanks mostly to communication technologies.
Mental health, friendships and COVID
My colleague Travis Cruickshank and I surveyed 1,599 Australians from various age groups during the national lockdown in April. Our study is still at the preprint stage, which means it hasn’t yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
A substantial proportion of participants reported a deterioration in their mental health due to COVID-19 (10% deteriorated a lot, 44% deteriorated somewhat, 40% reported no change, and 6% improved somewhat).
We also asked how their friendships had been affected, and surprisingly, most respondents reported no change (66%). This was despite 72% noting they were interacting face-to-face with friends a lot less (and a further 14% somewhat less) during the pandemic.
Communication technologies to the rescue
At first glance our results seem strange, as even the best communication technologies are arguably not an adequate substitute for face-to-face interaction. It’s difficult to make eye contact — an important social cue — through a screen. And if you’ve ever tried to catch up with a group of friends over Zoom or a similar platform, you’ll know it can become a little chaotic.
However, 56% of participants in our study reported spending more time interacting with friends using technology during the pandemic (for example, phone, email, or online chat). So it seems most people used communication technologies to stay connected with their friends during lockdown — even if it wasn’t quite the same as catching up in person.Shutterstock
Social media sometimes gets a bad rap. For example, excessive social media use has been associated with negative outcomes such as lower self-esteem and narcissistic tendencies. It can also be a vehicle for spreading misinformation.
However, having a raft of options for communicating digitally, of which social media platforms are a big part, has arguably been a good thing overall.
People have been able to share jokes with a wide audience to keep spirits up. For example, a Facebook group encouraging people to dress up in costumes to take their bins out, and then post pictures, went viral around the world.
More importantly, people could stay connected with friends and family during a stressful time. We know social support is important for managing anxiety, especially during fraught times.
But not everybody made use of technology
In our study, while most people reported no impact on their friendships, 27% of people reported a deterioration in their relationships with friends. These people were more likely to also report not increasing their level of communication via technological means.
Authors: Shane Rogers, Lecturer in Psychology, Edith Cowan University