For Better or Worse, Covid is Changing the Way We Value Friendship

For almost everyone, it is painfully obvious how our social lives have changed over the past year. With various waves of lockdowns and restrictions, we have only been allowed to gather in small groups outdoors, or occasionally indoors, or, in more dire circumstances when cases are much higher, there is no socializing, indoors or outdoors, outside of one’s household. In universities, this transition has been particularly stark, as traditional ways of meeting new people became health risks during the pandemic; classes this semester are completely online, making it difficult to engage with other students, with one’s academic interests, or with clubs and societies who are struggling to recruit new members, organize events, and facilitate engagement. Additionally, pubs and restaurants are shut, further limiting the places for friends to convene outside the household.   

The effects of these limitations on mental health have, so far, been well documented. A study at the Swinburn University of Technology by Dr. Michelle Lim suggests that two in three people in the United Kingdom have reported feelings of loneliness in the past year. These numbers are, perhaps unsurprisingly, starker amongst university students. This March, the Office for National Statistics reported that at least 1 in 3 university students reported feelings of loneliness often or constantly. The study also concluded that feelings of loneliness are more pronounced amongst university-aged students, of whom 28% felt frequent loneliness, than adults, roughly 8% of whom experienced frequent loneliness. The fact of the matter is that, for many of us, friendships that were once easy to maintain now require more effort.   studying group of friends Photo by Alexis Brown from Unsplash I set out to talk to students about how their relationships with their friends have changed, and found that there might be a silver lining to the frustrating lack of social interaction. For some, the pandemic has brought close friends closer, and strengthened friendships that had previously seemed insignificant. Priya Purdy, a third-year, told Her Campus that “the friendships that have meant the most to me have become more apparent. I have realized that it’s better to have five friends than fifty. The past year has really gotten me down, but my close friends know me well and have kept me supported.” 

Priya might be onto something. Friendships are one of the ways in which people can feel less lonely and more fulfilled. Strong friendships encourage healthy behaviors and help us feel less stressed and more emotionally supported. However, research suggests that you need fewer friends than you might think. Researchers from Northern Illinois University and the University of Arizona recently conducted a study involving 422 women and found that, on average, the average person needs three to five close friends to feel fulfilled. For those lucky students who have been able to keep in touch with their close friends, they have developed a newfound appreciation for friendship. Wilson Jones, a fourth-year, says that he feels as if some of his friendships have been put on pause: “In my first few years at university, I would interact with many different people every day. Some of these people I would consider acquaintances, some were friends, and others were close friends. It’s upsetting not seeing as many people, and I have had to make more of an effort to connect with people I want to stay close with. However, I have learned to value those friendships more.”

Lara Bautista, a second-year, echoed similar sentiments. “This is the time when I’ve kind of seen which friends have lasted and which haven’t,” she said. "There are people that I met last year that I was friends with as well. It’s not the same interacting with people online and it’s also hard when you haven’t seen people for a long time and you hang out with them. There’s a ton of awkwardness.” people on zoom call Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels For better or worse, for many students, Covid has changed the way we value friendship at a time when many students are struggling with feelings of loneliness and mental health struggles. Some students have adapted to place more value on certain friendships. Priya sees this as in ‘investment’ saying, “I now know the value of investing in certain friendships. The friendships that I have invested in haven’t changed much; we still talk regularly and I can talk to my friends about anything I need to. The nature of [the friendships] has changed. I need to put in more effort to talk to the friends I don’t live with”. Perhaps it is limiting to view friendship in such a transactional way; however, Wilson echoed similar feelings, saying “I have to put in the effort to talk to certain people. For me, it’s helped me realize who I want to stay in touch with after I graduate.”

Additionally, due to the nature of the pandemic and how hyper-political and socially-conscious the last year has been, friendships have, in a sense, been ‘fast-tracked.’ “With my uni friends, my relationships have changed pretty drastically,” said Lara. “We’ve broached far more difficult subjects a lot faster with one another. Talking about the pandemic and how it affects your mental health can be pretty vulnerable. For me, racism during the pandemic became something I could talk about. When I met my uni friends, it wasn’t something that I had imagined talking to them about anytime soon. I’ve had to be there more for my friends, too. It forces you to be a lot closer a lot faster than you think.”

In a time when students are struggling, friendships are deeply important  And while this has always been true, the pandemic has fundamentally changed the way that we view and appreciate them. The amount of negative news and truly depressing events that students have endured in the last year have undoubtedly taken a toll on mental health, and increased feelings of loneliness. That said, the pandemic has helped some friendships become even stronger, and helped others realize the value in friends that they had not previously seen.