The strangers we know

Examining the benefits of friendships that develop solely online during quarantine

Sophia Ma, Staff Writer

The chatter echoes, and the circles of people huddle closer among themselves — laughing, playing games and enjoying each other’s company. The different activities that each group does, whether it’s playing Dungeons and Dragons, doing each other’s makeup or getting boba at a nearby cafe, allows each group to have their own way to bond.

The definition of a friend group varies from person to person. For some, it may be the small group of close-knit people they eat lunch with. For others, it may be the teammates in their after school sports teams. And for the rest, maybe it’s clubmates or extended family such as siblings and cousins — the list goes on.

Yet, as we shifted into quarantine in March, the normal routine of meeting on campus and repeating the daily cycle of school, homework and sleep was abruptly halted. The same faces we saw every day became less familiar as we moved from rows of desks to rows of boxes on Zoom screens. And so many of our lives, and with them our friend groups, experienced major changes.

Face-to-face interactions with friends are now far less frequent, so the opportunities for putting yourself out there and getting closer to people have become less common. But forming relationships in-person is not the only way to meet people and forge new friendships.

As we spend countless hours indoors, more are using online platforms to meet new people. According to a survey of 239 MVHS people, 144 (60%) of respondents have made new connections or relationships through online platforms during quarantine, such as Instagram, Discord, Snapchat and Tiktok. These allow people to communicate with one another despite not being in person. Other entertainment apps like TikTok allow people to reach a wide audience, sometimes throughout the world, and connect with those who have common interests.

For some, quarantine has led to degrading health, a feeling of loneliness and a drift between friends; in fact, according to a study done on the impact of social isolation due to COVID-19, results showed that more than one-third of adolescents and almost half of young adults have felt high levels of loneliness. Though social isolation and loneliness are not quite the same things, these long exposures of separation from society seem to have all owed people to fall into depressive states and face a drop in health conditions. Through technology, however, a silver lining of shelter-in-place can be found — an avenue through which one can make new connections. And often, making these friends is what can help alleviate loneliness, reducing some of the negative impacts of the quarantine.

Yet, there is a general societal belief that online interactions lack emotion, and are too different from physical interaction. According to psychologist Will Reader from Sheffield Hallam University, “face-to-face contact” is “absolutely imperative” to maintaining close, genuine friendships. But for some, those online can understand you more than the ones that you’ve met in person. Connecting online can reduce direct judgement and awkwardness. Those who have gone through the same or similar experiences can provide their own insights and help you get through rough times. A “face-to-face” meetup is just one of many ways to solidify trust, and is not always necessary.

It’s true that there is only so much a few lines of text can convey, and the tone or personality of online friends can be difficult to decipher through their text messages. But these barriers are not unique to online interactions; they plague all friendships, no matter the platform.

Some people argue that legitimate friendships cannot be formed online, but this is not the case. Though it may be conceived as dangerous, as anyone can be behind the screen, if precautions are taken, it becomes much easier to connect with people over online platforms. By withholding personal information and only sharing it with those you trust, many dangerous situations can be avoided. Being aware of the potential consequences of anonymity online is important to staying safe — cyberbullying and catfishing are among the potential dangers — but this barrier does not mean that making actual, genuine relationships is impossible.

Getting through this seemingly isolated period can be a struggle, and although having time alone is necessary and healthy, we all need social interaction to thrive. Going online to play video games with people can almost simulate an in-person gathering. The collaborative nature of some games — Fortnite, Among Us and Valorant to name a few — provide a more direct connection through teamwork and communication through voice chats, rather than just text-based interactions, which can make these online interactions feel more real. Online friendships can fill the void that screams for human connection.

The age of social media is often criticized, but this aspect of effortless connectivity is something that should be recognized. Distance is no longer a constraint, as friends can be made from across the world, and friends who have moved away or old friendships can be maintained through these online platforms. Getting to know people from different places can introduce you to different perspectives and in turn, help expand your worldview.

As we move increasingly towards using online platforms to communicate and reach out to one another more often, the idea that a friendship cannot be made out of it should be diminished. Friends group can be the people you eat lunch with, the people you play sports with, the people you do club activities with — but they can also be the people you talk online with.