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What WhatsApp has taught me about friendship


Recently, after a bad day, I did what I did after many bad days and left a voice memo on WhatsApp. Almost instantly, friends scattered across the country rushed into battle, offering sympathy and advice.

We formed our WhatsApp group at the start of the pandemic, and almost imperceptibly, it has become a psychological lifeline. Our 18-month conversation quickly changes between silly jokes and heartfelt conversations, as well as TV recommendations and life advice. It should be unnatural, but it is the most natural thing in the world to mimic the rhythms of conversations we could have. if we could meet in person.

“I’m so glad you said that … I think the same thing and didn’t know if it was just me,” one friend replied when I told them how much the group chat meant to me. It’s almost embarrassing for me to admit – especially when so many people are trying to wean themselves off their phones and disconnect from social media, which seems to mostly make us feel worse.

Linda Kay, a psychology student at Edge Hill University in Lancashire, was not surprised when I told her this story. She has a pandemic WhatsApp group with current and former colleagues called Isolation and Isolation, and she researched the role of group messaging in providing emotional support. She noted that WhatsApp differs from social networks such as Facebook or Twitter in that it basically brings together existing groups of friends or relatives, offering them another channel to communicate and an easy and inexpensive way to improve those relationships.

In 2019, she co-authored paper for International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction It was attended by 200 WhatsApp users who, on average, spend almost an hour a day in the application. She found that spending more time there made people feel more attached to their WhatsApp friends, which in turn increased their well-being and self-esteem, and also made them feel less lonely and more socially competent. The group chat function can promote a sense of shared identity, which also improves well-being. In short, she claimed that WhatsApp is good for your health

The group chat feature on WhatsApp can be key. Janice McCabe, an associate professor of sociology at Dartmouth College, studied friendship networks among university students and found that people tend to fall into one of three categories: “close-knit,” who have one tightly knit group of friends where almost all friends know each other. ; “Separators” who were part of two or four small separate friendship groups; and “samplers” who collected individual friends from a wide variety of locations. The samplers most likely felt lonely and socially deprived. I wondered if WhatsApp group chats, in the midst of the pandemic that made group meetings difficult and made us act like samplers, could take advantage of the feeling of being part of the network. So that, at least in practice, we can act as “knitted together” or “dividers”.

When we talked about Zoom, McCabe thought I “got something.” In the summer, she followed people she first interviewed in 2016 when they were students in New Hampshire, researching how prom and the pandemic have changed their friendship groups. She found that not all friendships changed as much as one would expect, and some reported that their social media shrank while the remaining friendships became more intense and more personal.

“We often have a stereotype that group chat on something like WhatsApp will be superficial, and of course some conversations go that way,” McCabe said. But in her interviews, she was amazed at how often people used group chats to talk about the very difficult things they had to go through and find emotional support. When this help comes from a group, it can be more effective than when it comes from one person. “You can feel enveloped in love and support, ”she explained.

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One interviewee, a mature student in her fifties, told McCabe that she limited herself to eight to ten close friends because it was the most friendships she could “develop” on a daily basis. “My first thought was, ‘Wow, this is a lot of friends that need to be brought up every day,’ but when I talked to her, I realized that she could do it through group chats.” McCabe noted that too often we focus on making new friends and neglected the importance of developing the relationships we already have. WhatsApp offers one way to maintain and develop friendships.

Of course, not all WhatsApp groups work this way. Some work, school, or neighborhood groups are more focused on sharing practical information than emotional support (and many are not particularly effective in this regard). Some groups end up boring, or they may be overly hyperactive, or they may run out of steam due to the group dynamics being turned off. But what an imperceptibly powerful thing that was, when everything was closed and the world felt terrifying in a new way, the opportunity to print an urgent message – or even a gentle “how are you all?” – into your phone and know that a close-knit but geographically dispersed gang of people you love deeply will see your message and answer.

[See also: “Toxic” relationships, “burnout”, “productivity dysmorphia” – why do we medicalise societal problems?]

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