The value of friendship in an age of loneliness

March 17, 2022

Photograph by CottonBro at Pexels

Jamie Aldridge explores the connection between young people, social media, isolation and mental health

Given the recent epidemic of loneliness, particularly amongst young people, I want to consider what the true meaning of friendship is in the digital age.

To me, a good friend is someone who I can be myself around. I don’t need to doctor, censor or hide any part of my identity. I can keep some things private if I want to, but I never need to worry that I’ll be judged.

Healthy friendships are ones where both people enjoy and thrive on spending time with each other. They might not have identical opinions or interests, but they listen to each other without being critical or disparaging, and learn from their differences.

A close friend and I share our problems, listen and offer solutions if we can. When she was having trouble getting a job, I tailored her application, and helped her with interview techniques. She supported me when I was under a lot of pressure at work last year, by being there for me when I needed it.

When we meet up, she’s considerate and checks the venue with me first – she’s aware I have anxiety and hearing problems, and wouldn’t be able to cope in a noisy, crowded nightclub. Likewise, she knows I’ll always be up for a good catch-up somewhere quiet if she needs to offload.

A good friend is someone who I can be myself around. I don’t need to doctor, censor or hide any part of my identity

Unhealthy friendships can be draining, volatile and unstable. Perhaps one of the friends is high-maintenance, jealous or argumentative. If a friendship starts to feel like it’s more effort to maintain than it’s worth, it’s probably becoming toxic.

I was once friends with someone who was going through a difficult time at school, while I was having some personal problems. Every time we spoke it was all about their issues, and felt more like a rant than a two-way conversation. I felt overwhelmed, like I was taking on their problems as well trying to deal with my own, with no one to support me.

I continued to feel more and more isolated until we parted ways. The experience taught me to trust my instincts, as I’d felt for some time that the friendship was impacting my wellbeing and stressing me out.

The rise in social media use is having an impact on modern friendships. A study by Ofcom, has found that 4 to 16-year-olds consider meeting their friends face-to-face ‘too much effort’, preferring to consume media alone instead. It also found that 78% of 12 to 15-year-olds feel there is pressure to look popular online.

We often forget that the posts we see online are a very limited window into other people’s lives

Excessive social media use is linked to poorer mental health – especially amongst teens. A recent study published in The Independent found that the longer young people use social media, the more likely they are to suffer from poor sleep and attention span, low self-esteem, FOMO and mental health issues.

Social platforms can also create a huge pressure to present a ‘perfect’ image to the outside world. We often forget that the posts we see online are a very limited window into other people’s lives. Behind the scenes, it may not be as glamorous as it looks on their Instagram profile.

Although, social media can be a positive influence on our social circle if we use it to find friends similar to us, especially if we share a ‘difference’ not many people have (the same religion, disability or hobby). Social media can connect you with peers around the world, who you wouldn’t otherwise have met.

It’s healthy to take a break to nurture yourself and work on improving your wellbeing. I find setting aside half an hour a day to read, go for a walk or work on a scrapbook helps me focus on the present.

If you or someone you know is feeling lonely or experiencing mental health difficulties, you can seek support from The Mix. You can call them free on 0808 808 4994 or text THEMIX to 85258 if you feel you’re in crisis.

Thanks to SafeLives, which is operating the Your Best Friend Fund, for making this fantastic campaign possible.