The rise of the group chat means it’s easier than ever to stay connected with our friends. But does this keep us closer with our loved ones - or are we more isolated than ever?
Forget podcasts or music: for most of us, the constant noise of our mobile phones provides the real soundtrack to our daily lives. Throughout the day our phones buzz from across our desks or within the depths of our bags, signalling a needy yet reassuring presence that keeps us up to date on memes, artful flat-lays, and those all-important Bumble likes.
Amongst this digital soundscape there is perhaps no voice louder than the group chat. Popularised by platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, this endless stream of tricky-to-make plans, Bake Off gossip, and GIFs keeps us in constant contact with friends, family, and (for the unlucky amongst us) colleagues alike. Whether we’re on our commute or curled up in bed, we are able to chip in on the minutiae of our friend’s lives, chat about television shows from cities apart, and poll our friends on which outfit to buy, all without leaving the changing room.
There’s no doubt about it: the group chat has irrevocably changed the way we interact.
For many of us, this collective conversation is a godsend. Anyone living far away from their loved ones can seek instant connection at the press of a button. Those who are socially isolated, by chronic illnesses or long-term conditions that make leaving the house difficult, can find comfort in a string of messages. New mothers who can no longer shimmy off to a long, lazy brunch on a whim can keep in touch, instantly, with friends and family. For these individuals, the sense of connection that the group chat mimics can be a lifeline.
For me, the whirr of WhatsApp activity in particular has saved friendships that might otherwise have crumbled into the post-university ether. My best friends used to be no further than a corridor away from me, but we are now hundreds of miles apart. Our constant conversation offers up a next-best alternative to spontaneous pub trips, hungover afternoons spent binging on Jeremy Kyle and leftover pasta bake, and the wondrous simplicity of crawling into each other’s beds unannounced for a lengthy catch-up.
Amongst the thrum of green and white that populates our group thread is a sense that we are still connected, that our friendships are able to transcend the very real boundaries that separate us in reality. It proves that we are still a part of each other’s lives, even when time and distance might suggest otherwise.
Some, however, are less convinced about the benefits of the multiway message. “I’m not a massive fan of group chats, and I think that’s partly because of the pressure you feel to reply straight away, which isn’t always feasible,” says Amy, 28. “If you don’t immediately view the conversation there tends to be a lot [of chat] to catch up on, and that can be quite daunting.
“I appreciate the fact that group chats make talking to a large group of people easier, but they can be a bit much.”
For anyone who has fallen foul of leaving their phone unmanned, only to return to 78 notifications on the latest celebrity breakup, this will be a familiar phenomenon. While we are fortunate enough to have our friends a few taps of a phone screen away, is it possible that we have sacrificed quality communication in favour of quantity?
“My friends and I have busy careers and we don’t have the time to see each other that we used to, so the group chat is a massive part of our friendship” says Ella, 32. “But I didn’t realise how much I missed the more personal interactions until I broke up with someone I’d been seeing. I was devastated and just wanted someone to reach out and ask how I was, but my friends would always be sharing jokes and exciting news in the chat.
“We never really just checked in with each other anymore. I didn’t feel like I could say how down I was feeling, so I just kept quiet.”
Ella isn’t the only one to experience the paradox of feeling disconnected despite being in constant contact with her friends. Although instant messengers have improved digital communication, research suggests that forming valuable friendships in real life has become increasingly challenging. Young people now socialise face-to-face less and spend a third of their leisure time online. And although millennials are much more likely than older generations to use group chats, this seems unlikely to alleviate loneliness: in fact, 16-35 year olds are the loneliest age group of all.
While there is little solid evidence to support the oft-made claim that social media and digital communications increase isolation, it certainly seems that they are doing little to mitigate a thriving phenomenon. But how responsible is our reliance on group chats for this sense of seclusion?
“It’s not group chats that are the problem— it’s when group chats are overused,” says clinical psychologist and author of The Key to Calm, Linda Blair. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding around group chats. People think they are sources of actual connection, but they’re not. They’re sources of information.”
Whilst the group chat might be the perfect place to celebrate news about a new job, confirm plans, or simply share a good Gemma Collins meme, it’s certainly no replacement for more personal interactions. Real friendships tend to thrive in the spaces between the good times, in the places that jokes and gossip and the lightness of the group chat don’t touch. Friendships are maintained in messaging someone you love individually, and truly engaging with the parts of their life not shared in a comparatively public space.
When we can sit back and watch our friendship groups thrive without throwing in more than the odd laughing face emoji, it becomes easy to maintain a sense of closeness without investing the time or effort needed to create truly rewarding relationships.
But it’s clear that group chats aren’t going anywhere, so what can we do to maintain our relationships?
“Make group chats a means of getting connected, not something you rely on to feel connected,” advises Blair. “In order to feel secure and safe, human beings react in a part of the brain called the fear centre. This part of the brain is so primitive that it doesn’t react to anything other than real-life interaction… If you are overly reliant on devices all the time, you never truly get that sense of belonging.”
When my friends and I do manage to squeeze time in together – such as a long weekend downing prosecco and pretending we know how to put up a tent in Pembrokeshire, a quick coffee when our paths fortuitously cross in the same city, or a luxurious Friday night dinner where we let loose about our work frustrations and dating disasters – my heart fills with how fantastic these women are.
I am fortunate to be surrounded by people who both inspire me and make me laugh in equal measure, friends who are funny and smart and interesting in ways too colossal to possibly be condensed into the clamour of the messages we so often communicate in.
Paradoxically, while we may not have survived without the glue of the group chat holding us together, it’s the real-life versions of us that make the blue ticks, the barrage of notifications, and the endless planning all make sense. And surely that’s worth putting our phones down for.