Remember back in lockdown, when our only source of connection with our family and friends was virtual? All the Zoom quizzes, House Party games, video calls and remote working, none of which would have been possible without today's technology. In a post-pandemic era, we may have been wondering about our virtual connections, real-life relationships and which are best for our wellbeing. Or if we can get the same benefits from virtual friends and the ones we see out and about? Or perhaps we can thrive on remote connection entirely? Well, we’ve done some research, so keep reading to find out…
When we’re faced with a crisis or a rough patch, one of our first responses is usually to seek support, from our friends and family, the people close to us. It’s human nature to create and rely on a social support network - there’s logic in the saying ‘there’s safety in numbers’. And with the internet accessibility we have now, we’re able to reach out even when we can’t see our people in real life.
But we’re also seeing an increase in virtual relationships, with more and more people taking to social media and other online communication channels to find people with similar interests, life experiences or with romance in mind.
And why not? Socialising from the comfort of your own home, where it’s cheaper than heading out, and we can connect with people from all over the world, and fast. It really can be a convenient way to interact with other people, for the elderly who have limited ability to get out and about to see family, or those with disabilities, those who live in isolated areas or are isolated for other reasons, such as mental health issues or financial struggles.
Virtual vs Reality
With many of us building connections online, we might be wondering if our virtual relationships are as substantial, or have the potential to be, as those we have in real life. Can we really create substantial bonds with people we meet and interact with online? Are real-life relationships more satisfying than virtual ones?
In real life, we recognise 3 main motivating factors for friendship development;
Subconsciously, we also measure the potential of a new friend based on things like appearance, status, values and similarities to ourselves. A combination of these factors, and in theory the amount of time we spend together, is what makes for a substantial relationship - romantic or platonic. We might be more shallow in real life, which could prevent a substantial and satisfying connection from blossoming purely based on appearance or social status.
The online world forces us to focus on individual qualities and experiences. We seek connection with others who reflect our passions, values and opinions, like faith, politics or ambitions. We might also seek out people experiencing the same events, transitions or life challenges we are, like entering parenthood, people with chronic illness or bereavement.
We also tend to be less concerned about how we are perceived in our virtual relationships, thinking more about what they mean to us and what we gain from them. You might be surprised to learn, many of us feel more able to open up online, down to the greater sense of anonymity and less worrying about ‘what will they think of me?’. And because we don’t tend to see these people on a frequent basis, there’s less chance of being reminded of our vulnerability.
Real-life interactions happen in the moment, right there and then. So conversation flows, a back and forth between people encourages actively engage with each other. However, online interactions can promote passive interaction. We don’t have to respond quite so instantly, we might receive a message in the middle of a working day and choose to respond later when we have more time. Or we might not see messages until we check social media apps. We have more opportunities to think about and consider our responses via virtual communication, but it also means these relationships may not have the integrity a real-life relationship has for us.
We also have many more distractions when interacting virtually. If we were to go for a coffee with a friend in person, we’d find it quite rude if they were to sit with their nose buried in their phones, scrolling social media or checking emails. But in a virtual world, we wouldn’t know what the other person is doing, whether their actively engaged with us or actually looking at something entirely.
What we don’t get online is the further insight real-life interaction offers - or at least much less. When connecting face-to-face, we can gain more information about each other from non-verbal communication - things like body language, gestures, and facial expressions (although we can gauge facial expressions over video calls, we still don’t get the full picture).
While the nature of these relationships may differ, we can still form substantial and long-lasting relationships virtually. But these are at risk of fizzling out, fading away or instantly ending with the block button only millimetres away - the second we disagree, feel over the conversation or person, or even get unpleasant interactions they can be gone.
Furthermore, the virtual world gives us the power to be far more ruthless online than we may be would if face-to-face with people. From behind a screen, or where we’re anonymous online, we feel more able to say things we may be wouldn’t if we could be identified. While this might allow us to be more vulnerable, it can also allow us to be more unkind towards others. This is a huge problem and risk of online communication, it’s important to remember that on the other side of that screen or account, is a real person with real feelings and real people around them.
Another risk of the ability to hide behind a screen is the ability to be someone we are not. Or interact with others who are not who they say we are. Always approach online connections with caution, if it seems too good to be true, or something doesn’t seem quite right - trust your instincts or close down the connection if you aren’t quite sure.
What’s the difference then?
There’s no denying online relationships can be substantial and satisfying for us, especially where we really nurture them and work on growth. But this can take a lot more from us than those relationships we have in real life. And they may become more substantial by meeting at least once in person.
Building relationships online can be quick, easy and cheap. They might even be less superficial than those we have in real life. However, maintaining relationships online can be draining or time-consuming, or even distracting from other tasks we have on. The lack of extra information when we communicate online can prevent us from developing meaningful relationships. Things like non-verbal communication, even down to things like the person’s height or style can offer more insight about them and helps us understand others better.
When it comes to our wellbeing, face-to-face communication does tend to foster a higher quality of interactions than online communication. According to research, those who turn to the internet for social interaction may experience a negative impact on their quality of life. Whereas talking with a friend or family member face-to-face for just 10 minutes had a positive impact on quality of life.
Other research found that the number of real-life friends positively impacts our wellbeing, and doubling the number of friends had the same effect as a 50% income increase! Interestingly, these real-life relationships were reported to be far more important for people who are single, divorced, separate or widowed, than they are for married people or those living with a partner. But when it came to online networks, there was little evidence that these positively or negatively impact our wellbeing.
Virtual socialising has the potential to foster substantial and meaningful relationships, more so than face-to-face interactions with strangers. We still bond over mutual likes, or even dislikes, or shared interests and experiences that we might not have with the bus driver we see each morning on the commute. But our cultivated real-life relationships, with friends and family, partners or colleagues, tend to be more satisfying and beneficial to our wellbeing than those online.
Online communication and social media are great tools to supplement our social lives, rather than become an integral or sole source for connection. In order to really enhance our wellbeing from relationships, we of course need a healthy balance between the virtual and real worlds.
Quality over quantity: whether we’re talking about online or real-life connections, it is always more about the quality of these than the quantity. Finding a balance between both worlds doesn’t necessarily mean we have the same amount of friends in both. It is more about the quality in both worlds, what you gain from these relationships, and what works for us and our wellbeing.
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