After a bad day recently, I did what I have done after many bad days and left a voice note on WhatsApp. Almost instantly, friends scattered around the country leaped into action, offering sympathy and advice.
We formed our WhatsApp group at the start of the pandemic and almost unnoticed it became a psychological lifeline. Our 18-month conversation shifts at speed between silly jokes and heart-to-hearts and TV recommendations and life advice in a way that should be unnatural but is the most natural thing in the world, mimicking the rhythms of the chats we might have had if we were able to meet in person.
“I’m so glad you said that… I think the same, and didn’t know if it was just me,” one friend replied when I told them how much the group chat meant to me. It feels almost embarrassing to confess – especially when so many are trying to wean themselves off their phones and “unplug” from social media sites that seem mostly to make us feel worse.
Linda Kaye, a reader in psychology at Edge Hill University in Lancashire, was not surprised when I told her this story. She has a pandemic WhatsApp group with current and former colleagues called “Isolation Schmisolation”, and has researched the role group messaging can play in providing emotional support. She observed that what distinguishes WhatsApp from social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter is that it mostly brings together existing groups of friends or relatives, offering them another channel for communication and an easy and low-cost way to enhance those relationships.
In 2019, she co-authored a paper for the International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction that surveyed 200 WhatsApp users who spent, on average, almost an hour a day on the app. She found that spending more time there made people feel more bonded to their WhatsApp friends, which in turn boosted wellbeing and self-esteem, and made them feel less lonely and more socially competent. The group chat function could foster a sense of shared identity, which also boosts wellbeing. In short, she argued that WhatsApp is good for your health.
WhatsApp’s group chat function may be key. Janice McCabe, an associate professor of sociology at Dartmouth College, has studied friendship networks among university students and found that people tend to fall into one of three categories: the “tight-knitters”, who have one densely woven friendship group where nearly all friends know each other; the “compartmentalisers”, who were part of two to four smaller, discrete friendship groups; and the “samplers”, who collected individual friends from a variety of places. The samplers were most likely to feel lonely and lacking social connection. I wondered whether, in a pandemic that made it harder to meet-up in groups – forcing us to behave more like “samplers” – WhatsApp group chats could help us reap the benefits of feeling part of a network. So that, virtually at least, we could act as “tight-knitters” or “compartmentalisers”.
When we spoke on Zoom, McCabe thought I was “on to something”. Over the summer, she had been following up with people she first interviewed in 2016, when they were students in New Hampshire, exploring how graduation and a pandemic had reshaped their friendship groups. She found that not everyone’s friendships had changed as much as one might expect, and some reported that their social networks had shrunk, while remaining friendships had become more intense and more personal.
“We often have a stereotype that a group chat on something like WhatsApp would be superficial, and certainly some conversations go that way,” McCabe said. But in her interviews, she was struck by how often people were using group chats to talk about very difficult things they were going through, and to seek emotional support. When this help comes from a group, it can feel more impactful than when it is coming from just one person. “You can feel enveloped in love and support,” she explained.
One interviewee, a mature student in her fifties, told McCabe that she had limited herself to eight to ten close friends because this was the largest number of friendships she could “nurture” daily. “My first thought was, ‘wow, that’s a lot of friends to nurture in a daily way’, but as I spoke to her, I realised that she was able to do this through group chats.” Too often, McCabe observed, we focus efforts on making new friends and neglect the importance of nurturing the relationships we have already. WhatsApp offers one way to maintain and foster friendships.
Of course, not every WhatsApp group functions in this way. Some work, school or neighbourhood-related groups are more geared towards sharing practical information than emotional support (and many are not particularly effective at that). Some groups end up being boring, or they might be oppressively overactive, or might fizzle out because the group dynamic is off. But what a quietly powerful thing it was, when everything was closed and the world felt newly terrifying, to be able to type an urgent message – or even a bland “how are you all?” – into your phone and know that a close-knit but geographically dispersed gang of people you love deeply would see your message and respond.