Opinion

Digital friendships: taking back control?

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev from unsplash

Last year has been a bit like a prison sentence. We have had a few short periods of release for good behaviour but confinement has been hard even for those of us who might consider themselves resilient. And in this prison, who was our cell mate? I think it was a digital cell mate in all its guises and glory.

In large part we have embraced and deepened our affections for our nearest and dearest, that is our mobile phones and for so many it has turned into a harmful addiction. That light of the phone confirming a fresh notification can be seen 24/7 from early morning to very late at night, filling the dark voids and dark days. It did a great job.

Like any addictive drug, the more you take and enjoy it, the more you want to continue and try more. So many choices and brands to explore and interact with, perhaps when we look back on the pandemic, psychologists will record it as the period when the country’s mental health came close to collapse.

Recognising the addiction is difficult, as many of us have developed a dependency on our phones. Let’s be honest, it’s how we managed to survive to date. Social isolation and deprivation of our normal liberties has been brutal. Real friendships have suffered, making and consolidating new friendships impossible and all when the daily news bulletins and newspapers have been so full of depressing stories. Physical interaction is what we are all craving even if it’s just a pint, a bowl of chips and a gossiping session.

Have you missed a hug, laughter, a kiss, or just a great friendship where meeting and talking face to face beside another person or with a group was so much fun and so stimulating?

Our lives have been turned upside down in a way that has been so foreign to all of us and we have all suffered. Anyone who says different is lying but more importantly to themselves. It’s easy to put on a front for a zoom call, on facebook messenger or equivalent. The first step to recovery is admitting that we have suffered and for so many this suffering has been great.

I have multiple friends who have taken a conscious decision to reduce their ‘online time’ in recent weeks and all are reporting feeling more positive since they have done it. Facebook is all consuming and in so many ways so clever, but I still see others who are on facebook for much of the day. There was a time when I would join in and enjoy interacting with them. New research from King’s College London found that 39% of university students displayed symptoms of smartphone addiction, as defined by a clinical tool devised to diagnose the problem.

My online activity dramatically reduced in late January when my facebook account was hacked. I have now set up a new one now but have actually enjoyed three weeks of total abstinence. I know a faceless computer algorithm was controlling me and it’s tried to do it again. But I have taken back control now.

I know it missed me, but I have not missed it. I have kicked my addiction and am feeling so much more positive and mentally alert.

It’s made me more aware of what ‘digital friendships’ are actually doing to people. Research clearly shows in-person face-to-face social activity is a hedge against depression, anxiety, and other mental health outcomes. Real-world socializing is better for mental health than online social media activity.


The pandemic has had a fundamental impact on millions of people all around the UK and globally. Demand for mental health service is rocketing in every corner of the world and just easing off on your mobile phone is not the sole solution but it’s a great start.

Modelling by the Centre for Mental Health forecasts that as many as 10 million people will need new or additional mental health support as a direct result of the coronavirus epidemic. About 1.3 million people who have not had mental health problems before are expected to need treatment for moderate to severe anxiety, and 1.8 million treatment for moderate to severe depression, it found.

The overall figure includes 1.5 million children at risk of anxiety and depression brought about or aggravated by social isolation, quarantine or the hospitalisation or death of family members. The numbers may rise as the full impact becomes clear on Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, and people with disabilities.

The Guardian reported that: “Others are dealing with complex grief reactions after losing loved ones to the virus, often without being able to say goodbye in person. The potential for mental health problems emerging in people with Long Covid is also a very real worry…while uncertainties over employment, housing and the broader economic hardship ahead will only add to the burden.”

Talking about one’s own mental health may be less of a taboo subject than in the past. So many friends talk about it openly. It’s encouraging that the NHS is actively offering advice and some of it is very straightforward and obvious, but nothing about coping with the pandemic is obvious. It has been a new and horrible experience for all of us.

But excessive social media usage can be harmful. A recent article in the Independent lists six impacts ranging from self-esteem to lack of concentration, sleep, memory loss and of course human interaction. Many of us have turned to our phones for company and it has been a vital means of communication with our families. friends and work colleagues through zoom. But as the days are beginning to lengthen, become brighter and little warmer we have the opportunity all start looking at our phones and screens perhaps a little less.

It’s a real challenge for all of us but as the vaccination roll out is beginning to have a positive impact on this horrible virus it’s time to plan for the new ‘normality.’ It’s time to stage our own fight back and plan positive activities that allow for our own physical and mental health recovery. For so many whose mental health has been adversely impacted by the pandemic and multiple lockdowns, recovery may be slow. We must all reach out and support each other. We will recover faster by doing so. We are stronger together.

Let’s focus on real friendships and turn off our ’digital friend’ more often!

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