Practicing social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t have to jeopardize friendships. With a little creativity, pals can stay connected while staying safe. As more universities go online, texting, video calling, playing online games and other modes of communication are helping college students not only maintain relationships with their friends, but also discover entirely new dimensions to those friendships. Four undergraduate college students weigh in on their experiences navigating the new digital social landscape afforded to them by the pandemic.
Most American college students are no strangers to highly digital relationships. According to The Pew Research Center, as of 2019, 81% of Americans owned a smartphone, with that number rising to 96% among Americans aged 18-29. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many relationships have become primarily digital to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus.
“We [use] Discord, text, call and Zoom,” says Rebecca Newman, a sophomore at Mills College.
Zoom — so ubiquitous in the pandemic — is an online video conferencing tool utilized by anyone from government officials conducting official meetings to teenagers playing a round of online Cards Against Humanity.
Despite the physical disconnect, some students find comfort in engaging with various forms of digital communication. Without the pressure to gussy up and make a commute, some friends find that they like the laid-back nature of virtual chats. Such modes of communication can even serve as a helpful accommodation for folks who have different preferences in social interaction or become drained easily by spending a lengthy time in a social setting.
Sophomore Caroline Cecil at Southwest Baptist University says, “Introverts unite! I thought it would be as draining as being face-to-face sometimes, but it isn’t always that way. I know it’s not going to feel like a day of hanging out with someone if I have a Zoom call in the afternoon.”
However, the mode of communication isn’t the only factor that matters in a long-distance friendship. Friends must navigate the wide range of feelings that result from abruptly being unable to physically spend time together. A lack of physical touch and inability to participate in the same activities with friends can create deep sadness. Managing conflict, coping with loneliness and seeking joy in a changed situation are just a few endeavors friends embark on.
Newman says, “the distance [has] hurt a couple friendships because those friends were dealing with their own stress, and I was dealing with my own stress, and we maybe didn’t communicate effectively.”
According to a study performed by researchers at the University of Arizona, Rutgers University and the University of Indiana Bloomington, differences in attitudes towards and compliance with public health guidelines were correlated with higher incidents of rifts in friendships. There is an incentive to be on the same page about staying safe; people who engaged in behaviors to reduce their risk of COVID-19 were more satisfied with their friendships, the researchers found.
While tensions are legitimate and worth addressing, it is important to note that maintaining friendships during the pandemic is likely to have an overall positive effect on one’s mental health. The researchers say, “Friendships can help protect against feelings of isolation and loneliness, having positive influences on physical and mental health; friendships are also associated with faster recovery, increased well-being, and protection against both mental and physical illnesses.”
Newman shares, “[The pandemic] has been evoking some deep feelings in me, and maybe in [my friends] as well, and there’s more of an outlet, a space, to share that. Maybe the pandemic changed our relationship in another way. It made us stronger and more understanding of one another.”
For some students, the pandemic has given them the opportunity to learn from the complexity of their friendship journeys. In the nearly ten months since the pandemic began, they have developed strategies and wisdom to keep their friendships strong. Changing one’s perspective on what meaningful communication looks like is crucial. While digital communication may have previously served a supplementary purpose in friendships, for many it has become one of the only ways to retain a social life. Thus, digital tools must now be treated as a valid form of communication.
Meredyth Cohen, a junior at Mills College, offers some practical tips for creating meaningful and fulfilling experiences with friends, even through a screen.
“Having a schedule [helps] if you’re busy. Having set times to do things [with friends] is good,” she said, “[My friend and I] should do something together, cook the same thing. If you’re away from someone for so long, you won’t have any recent memories together.”
While working to maintain friendships may prove important and beneficial for many, doing so might not be easy. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused enormous loss, devastation and upheaval, and many find themselves struggling with both their physical and mental health. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center in March 2020, 1 in 5 adults had a physical reaction when they thought about the global health crisis. In the face of such adversity, what constitutes a “successful” friendship varies for everyone. Each person has different needs and desires for their social life as they confront a changing world.
Mills sophomore Grace Hirschfeld holds space for this challenging situation. “I’m not sure if there’s a way to do [friendships] successfully or if it’s more about the intentions of both people in a relationship … there are very different ways for a real relationship to flourish. You don’t have to talk every day. Even if you only talk twice a year and you’re having amazing conversations in those two times a year, that’s making it work for you. It’s very dependent on each person’s relationship,” she says.
Whether it’s through baking cakes together via Zoom, indulging in a game of Among Us or simply chatting on the phone once in a while, long-distance college friendships are possible — even enjoyable.