When my grandma wants to get in touch with someone she’ll take out her phone, dial a number and make a phone call. When the phone call is finished, she'll put the phone back in its holder and carry on with her day.
I used to carry out my communications with this kind of consideration too. A text was 40p back in the day, so I’d be careful who I spent my prepaid credit on. But when that ran out, there was always the landline for a long catch up with a friend after school.
Then we got the internet on our phones and it cheapened everything – including our relationships. Our innocent little Nokia 3310s evolved into smartphones; mini computers that make us feel like we’re constantly not doing enough. Nowhere is this more evident than in our social lives.
In a recent survey conducted by Toluna Analytics, 49% of participants said the most stressful thing about their friendships was keeping in touch with everyone. A quick look around my own social circle shows a group of girls (yep, it is mainly the girls who are guilty of this) with the same problem.
It’s more than staying in touch with the latest gossip, we feel obliged to know the in’s and out’s of each other’s lives, all the time, just because we can.
The camaraderie, mutual interests, closeness and emotional support that our friendships were built on have been reduced to a stream of consciousness over Whatsapp. Now, our online communications can be divided into three categories: "chaotic crowd-planning", "amateur comedy sketches" (usually involving gifs) and the "strained back and forth of emotional tennis".
28-year old Romilly Morgan decided to call it quits completely, and now lives a happy Whatsapp-free life. It’s done wonders for her stress levels. “Now I just type long and often convoluted messages, and my friends usually reply the next day and then I reply the day after”, she explains. “It takes the pressure off and puts a bollard in the way of our constant need for immediacy and instant gratification, which I really don’t believe are conducive to functioning and rewarding relationships.”
A growing number of psychologists are exploring our relationship with technology. One of these ‘cyberpsychologists’ is Dr Linda Kaye, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Edge Hill University. “Obviously Smartphones have a range of uses so we shouldn't assume we're "addicted" to them as such based on looking at how much we use them” says Dr Kaye. “But it's interesting that most of the psychological attachment is through this idea that they help us feel connected with others.
“This is a very powerful psychological experience” she points out. “And we know from psychological evidence, that we can have negative and anxious experiences if we feel we don't have secure attachments with significant others.”
When it does come to keeping in touch, none of us really believe that a few messages sent via any instant messaging service can substitute a real life meeting and a good old fashioned natter. But the tricky thing isn’t whether or not we want to stay in touch in this way, it’s that really, we often don’t have a choice.
Instant messaging services are great for staying in touch with your family and people abroad, for example, but that’s because it’s the only way to do so. But when it comes to friends living in the same city it’s just a crappy substitute for real interaction. It’s doesn’t make up for the fact that your diary is booked up weeks in advance and the only time you see your best friend is during an early morning HIIT class.
“It's not so much the technology which should be the focus of these issues, but how people use it in line with their social engagements more generally” reflects Dr Kaye. “It's important that we do not solely rely on online friends, but instead use these relationships to bolster those which we have in the real world. A healthy balance of the two is important to maintain for positive well-being.”
Charlotte Stothart is a 28-year old who recently moved to Amsterdam, so she’s something of an expert in modern communication. “I love FaceTime, it has honestly been a saviour in holding down a long distance relationship” she says. “I use it with my best friends too and it feels like you’ve hung out with them.” The distance has even made her a huge supporter of the dreaded Whatsapp group: “I have a few girl groups that we use every day which makes our relationships feel as relaxed as they have always been.”
Often older relationships – the ones that have survived you transferring from weekend phone calls on the landline to MySpace to email to Facebook to Whatsapp and back again – are the ones that take the least nurturing. They can stand up on their own and you don’t get riddled with guilt when you haven’t spoken to them for a while. Charlotte says she’s noticed this more since moving and feels more pressure when it comes to her wider group of friends, and the newer ones in particular.
These younger relationships – the new groups, the new friends – are the ones that demand the most online attention because they haven’t been grounded in real life yet. “You end up having ‘tell me everything’ chats on Whatsapp, which is just not a real way of catching up” says Charlotte.
Romilly agrees that this kind of constant relay of information is little more than technological sewage. “I genuinely have little to no understanding of why anyone (barring my Ma) would want to hear about my day-to-day existence all the time” she says. “I barely even want to, and I live it."
“I prefer to celebrate the good, the bad and the ugly but not the commonplace and I hope that my friends understand that I am not being uncommunicative” she continues, “but just trying to refrain from clogging up their phones with even more useless information.”
Victoria Smith-Murphy is a life coach who works with “head-led people to help them connect with their heart and gut, and stop second guessing themselves.” She is so used to messaging friends to stay in touch that she’s grown to see the phone calls as time-thieves, and much prefers Whatsapp. “I have friends who still make phone-calls, and I actually find that more stressful” she says. “I’d rather stay in touch by message when you can do it in your own time.”
You have to wonder, outside pressure cookers like London, Manchester and other big cities, does everyone else feel like this? Or is this pressure something that comes with living in a busy, bustling 24-hour city where there’s always something to do and someone to see and not enough daylight hours for any of it?
“I do find London much more competitive and stressful, and this is mirrored in keeping in touch and having plans” reflects Charlotte. “Everyone is busy all the time with plans made weeks in advance and everyone wants to know everything that is going on with everyone.”
Victoria’s own work as a life coach finds her spending time with mental health start up Sanctus. In this role she meets a lot of young people working in the tech industry. And what’s the biggest cause of anxiety for those who are always connected? Staying in touch with people.
A lot of research is being done into the mental side effects of being ‘always on’. But often that research focuses on our heads. Like the technology we use, it forgets that we are human beings with bodies. It doesn’t measure intuition or empathy, or any of the other things that make real life human interaction so extraordinary.