BY Jocelyn Wong

We don’t realise how important certain things are until we come to the verge of losing them.

In 2020, global social distancing laws in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have stripped away our ability to connect with our friends and family, making us realise just how important these relationships are to our emotional wellbeing.

Research from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2019) showed that over half of Aussies (53%) have admitted to feeling socially isolated, a drastic increase from the 9.5% reported in 2016 (see more here).

We know that loneliness is a huge risk factor for developing depression and anxiety, and there's nothing worse than feeling terrible at home without someone close to talk to, who might just be going through the same thing. As human beings are social beings, we need to find new ways to connect and care for others.

We interviewed Dana Kerford, Australia's youth friendship expert about why friendships are so important and how we may, and should, utilise digital communication technologies to reconnect with our friends and make to new ones especially in this social climate.

Jocelyn: Welcome Dana, thanks for being here with us. How are you going?

Dana: Hi! I’m good and I’m so excited that you’re shining the light on friendship. In 2020, we are starting to realise how important friendship is to us, how much we need each other.

Jocelyn: We used to take friendships for granted. But now we’ve noticed where the focus should be.

Dana: When life gets busy, and when we have lots going on, it’s often friends that are the first thing to fall off the priority list. But research showed that when we’re stressed and when much is going on, that is the time that we need to prioritise friendship.

Jocelyn: Yes indeed. So firstly, what makes friendships so important to our emotional wellbeing especially in recent times?

Dana: All of the emerging wellbeing science continues to point to relationships being the heart of our wellbeing. Friendship is a special type of relationship because it’s a relationship that we choose. We know that our friends are there to support us, they are people who we talk to, we lean on we confide in. There are so many benefits to our wellbeing having those deep meaningful relationships with those people.

Jocelyn: How are we in the recent social distancing climate, maintaining and deepening friendships?

Dana: Snapchat’s friendship report that came out this year revealed that almost 80% of Australians really leaned into technology to connect with their friends during the pandemic. We have to find creative ways to reach out to our friends and connect with them and social media has really allowed that. If we had this shut down prior to having an online world being such a big part of how we navigate friendships, it would had been so much harder.

Jocelyn: Going back to the times prior to social distancing, certain research showed that heavy social media use has been associated with increased loneliness, mainly through the FOMO (fear of missing out) mindset when young people witness their friends hanging out with others in an occasion where they weren’t part of. How do we find a balance between engaging in relationships happening online and those in our physical environment?

Dana: I want to set the record straight on this loneliness and social media dynamic. There is a misconception that social media creates loneliness. However, research showed that people who already feel lonely, those who already have low levels of psychological wellbeing are more at risk when they use social media. So those who have friends, connections and networks, when we look at the science, the impact that social media has on our wellbeing, looking specifically on relationships, we’re seeing positive outcomes. So social media is allowing us to create and enhance connections. It’s another tool to have a high-quality connection.

When we map our networks online and compare those in real life, they are very similar. You generally don’t friend somebody online who you haven’t met in person. We also know that our youth uses the term ‘friend’ loosely when referring those online. People that they might accept on social networks online might not be someone that they would invite to their party. Boundaries look different online than they look in person.

Around the loneliness and feelings of isolation, when we’re online, we just need to be a little bit more mindful about the people who make us feel good and those who make us feel bad. I often use a friendometer with children to get them to think about the difference between healthy and unhealthy friendships. When you are online and you’re recognising someone who don’t align with your beliefs, it’s important that you’re mindful of that and surrounding yourself with people who make us feel good, and makes us feel respected.

Jocelyn: It sounds like it’s establishing certain online social boundaries.

In the online world, we tend to just let everyone into our social network. It’s okay to get ruthless about who we mute, who we block or who we’re not accepting into our online world, so we’re not negatively influenced by them.

However, we absolutely think that conflicts should be dealt with face to face.

There’re certain things that social media is great for, such as connecting and sharing our vulnerabilities.

Our youth are more likely than any other generation to talk to our friends online about mental health issues. It’s very exciting that we’re seeing that young people reaching out to their friends especially on. Platforms like Snapchat where it’s one on one.

Jocelyn: From my experience in using social media communication platforms, they encourage the use of creativity and humour in our relationships, which I love.

Dana: Absolutely! This year, Snapchat report revealed that Australians really value humour and fun in their relationships. When we look at wellbeing, there’s this term called high quality connection in Jane Dutton’s research. We can have these high-quality connections in little moments when you send your friends a picture or a funny meme, and the two of you have a little connection in that way.

Jocelyn: How about new friendships, what are some platforms where you may meet new people?

Dana: I think, the idea of surrounding yourself with people who lift you up. This is what message groups are for. Where we may share and collaborate and ask questions, and forming community connections, maybe not friendships, which also contribute to our wellbeing.

Another very important part of making friends and this Shasta Nelson in the US, she talks about three qualities, she calls it “frientimacy”, which is the combination between friendship and intimacy. Three factors: Vulnerability, so being able to open up, be honest and sharing to allow for genuine human connection; Consistency: when we leave University and we go out into the working world, we have to prioritise that connection with our friends as without that, it’s going to drop off. That’s why we see over half of adult Australians that, the closest friends they made in childhood. So deep relationships are built upon consistency; the third one is Positivity: feeling positive emotions when you’re with that person, they lift you up, you feel good. It’s important that we keep them in mind as we try to deepen relationships and form new connections.

Jocelyn: How do we encourage that consistency in an online environment?

Dana: I think even checking in with your friends. Another thing that was revealed in the Snapchat report was that two-thirds, 66% of Australians wish that their friends reached out to them more. The idea is that we can be consistent in the idea that our friends know, for example, our birthdays. It’s about building trust, and that becomes predictable. There’s consistency in the sense that we reach out whenever we can, a and especially at big milestones like birthdays, like when difficult things happen in our lives. It’s important that we’re reaching out.

Jocelyn: What is some advice on how to be a better friend, partner or family member in the current social climate?

Dana: I go back to the Snapchat report saying what matters most to Australians in friendships. So trust was a big one, it was at the top of the list. I loved seeing how important having a laugh and having fun were for Australians. It’s a very easy way for Australians to have fun and be playful using digital technologies to deepen connections.

Jocelyn: It sounds like digital communication tools really enhance our ability to engage with all three aspects of friendamacy- vulnerability, consistency and positivity.

Thank you so much Dana for reminding us about the importance of friendships and giving us great advice on how to nurture these relationships by utilising digital technologies.

Dana: Yes call your friends, send them a message and make sure that they are a priority in your lives.

Check out Dana’s initiative of educating children with useful friendship skills to help them navigate current and future relationships and develop self-confidence here .