What is WhatsApp doing to our friendships in lockdown?

Written by Hajar J. Woodland

With the lockdown rules tightening up due to the spread of the coronavirus, many of us are relying on social media to maintain our friendships more than ever. Writer Hajar J. Woodland explores the detrimental and positive effects of being present online all the time. 

If I wake up in the middle of the night, it takes all my strength not to check WhatsApp. In theory, my screen time settings prevent me from using my phone by hiding notifications and greying out apps. But in practice, I hit ‘ignore limit’ and carry on. What’s the harm in a sneak peek, even if it is 2am?

Anticipating that sweet dopamine hit, I lift my phone off the bedside table and open WhatsApp. There’s a notification from Jaz*, a friend who’s going through a breakup. Today was a bad day, she said in her 11pm message. “Are you still up?”

I’m technically not ‘up’ but guilt needles me. I don’t want her to feel blue-ticked and lonely so, one by one, I check off the “good friend” responses: “I’m sorry you’re sad. What’s brought this on? Is there anything I can do? Do you need to talk?” I then autopilot my way through Twitter and Instagram, and, by the time I’ve looked at the news, Jaz has replied. Fifteen minutes of soothing words later, we agree to a coffee in the week and say goodnight. 

Jaz and I have never been upset over a slow reply or blue tick but, despite a nurturing real-life relationship, our over-availability on WhatsApp doesn’t feel healthy. I know I’ll keep checking and responding, and I’m definitely not alone in feeling compelled to do so.

“My brain hurts if I don’t reply,” says one of the respondents to my quick and very unscientific survey of 20 women and four men about their WhatsApp use. “I wish I had an out-of-office for WhatsApp… feeling contactable all the time is a nightmare,” says another.

Studies into stress levels and phone use show that we’re hit from two angles: social media and screen time. This might explain why a quarter of respondents say they feel anxious, overwhelmed and drained when they see messages.

“Social media and screen focus can have independent negative effects on our mental health,” says Professor Carmine Pariante, Professor of Biological Psychiatry at King’s College London. “Studies have shown links between increased social media time and anxiety and depression, and volunteers who then spent less time on social media found an improvement in stress levels and mental health.”

While we don’t always think of WhatsApp as a social media tool, Pariante says that, in helping us feel part of a society, connected and loved, it gives the same sense of social reward. That sense of reward and social connection could explain why the majority of survey participants feel WhatsApp has a positive impact on their lives.

Rosie Weatherley from mental health charity Mind believes instant messaging tools offer many benefits, especially when people are physically isolated. “As an informal, low-pressure way to stay in touch, they serve as little reminders that people are thinking of you.”

She advises that if people feel overwhelmed or pressured by notifications and chat threads, they should find ways to set a tone and pace of conversation they’re comfortable with. “You might decide to mute group chats or even leave some of them… or withhold information like when you were last online, or whether you’ve read a message.”

There are lots of ways to give yourself a breather, but what if the problem runs deeper than adjusting your phone settings? Simone Bose, Relate spokesperson and relationship counsellor, says that although many of her clients have found WhatsApp to be a lifeline, the app comes up a lot in her sessions, with some people even losing friendships because of it.

“Things like WhatsApp and Facebook messaging can definitely tap into co-dependent relationships. In those dynamics, there’s a giver and a taker. If you’re the giver, you might feel you always have to be on call and respond to people instantly, and if you’re the taker, you often expect an immediate response.”

Bose believes vulnerability is vital in building relationships, but a giver will often avoid that vulnerability. “A giver likely won’t have had their needs met in childhood and will find control, approval and value in being useful and available to others.” In WhatsApp terms, a good friend replies straight away.

It’s a stretch to say WhatsApp causes codependent relationships, but I can see how it might facilitate and exacerbate existing imbalances. What easier way to measure and provide evidence for a friend’s loyalty and responsiveness than examining interactions with them?

I exported my WhatsApp conversations to find out what the data said about how I communicate with friends. In the first three months of lockdown, one friend and I exchanged 961 messages, nearly double the 510 we’d sent for the same time period in the previous year.

And message content says a lot too. Between us we’ve said ‘anxious’ and ‘anxiety’ 145 times and ‘trigger’ 53. I was cheered by the 82 instances of the word ‘happy’ until I saw that 79 of those were in fact: ‘Happy?’ That powerful question mark suggests WhatsApp is our go-to for emotional laundry.

Even though these exchanges seem intimate and meaningful in subject matter, Bose believes that if you’re not picking up on real-life human cues like facial expressions and tone of voice, there’s only so deep you can go.

“The only way you have a proper friendship is when you meet, talk and connect,” she says. Pariante agrees and believes the overuse of apps can create a false perception of human relationships. “Mobile phones have a role in maintaining human friendship but they can’t replicate the intimacy we crave, so we need a combination of both. If it’s the only way you communicate with a friend, you’ll only have a transient feeling of reward that doesn’t fulfil your expectation for intimacy.”

While technology helps us bridge those gaps between meetings, we need to remember how much better we feel when seeing friends in real-life, socially distanced face to socially distanced face. If we’re only responding to quell notification anxiety, then we need to ease off the apps and get those coffees in the diary. While we still have coffee shops.

Coping with anxiety

If you’re dealing with feelings of anxiety and worry during the coronavirus outbreak, it’s important to understand that this is a completely normal response to the current situation. However, if you’re looking for a way to alleviate some of those feelings, here’s three articles that might help.

  • 4 tips for dealing with anxiety, from someone who lives with it
  • Everything you need to know about seeking mental health support during the coronavirus pandemic
  • Free online therapy and wellbeing resources you can access during the coronavirus outbreak

For more information on anxiety, including what it is and how to cope, you can check out the NHS Every Mind Matters website or visit Mind.

Image: Getty

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