The Lookout is a space for understanding how life has changed for young people during Covid. During recent Lookout discussions, the double-edged nature of digital connection has come up frequently. In this Sighting, we explore the complex effect of digital technology on young people’s relationships over the course of the pandemic so far. 

We often note that being well connected is not the same as connecting well. Whilst social media offers an avenue for relationships to continue in a time of physical disconnection, too much screen time can erode the health of our minds and our relationships. 

A short-term solution 

Particularly in the early days of the pandemic, digital technology provided a social lifeline to many, including children and young people. Digital relationships can’t replicate in-person ones, but in the absence of the latter, sociable screen activities like school lessons, video games with friends or chatting on social media can help young people build relationships and empathy. They are, as Dr. Alice Good writes, “such a lifeline to many.”

For some, social media in particular provided a platform on which relationships grew stronger as friends opened up to one another through shared experiences of lockdown. 

I missed my friends but we had a Whatsapp group we could talk in. We (me and my friends) bonded more closely than we did before. We came out of our shell more. I’m not really sure why but when we were talking we had more similarities than we thought. 

Lookout participant

Through social media, most of my friendships stayed the same. Some became even closer because of social media. I would talk to my friends online and even call them which helped to keep our relationship stable.  

Lookout participant

Digital burnout – and addiction

But as lockdown wore on, young people – like many adults – started to feel the effects of ‘digital burnout’. Young people reported diminishing returns from digital connectivity, especially in the seemingly endless winter lockdown. Young Minds quotes one young person in January 2021:

Everyone has got bored of connecting online and stopped reaching out

Young Minds research participant

The combined hours spent learning, socialising and playing online fuelled digital addiction, resulting in a ‘hate-love’ relationship with digital technology. Parents shared their concern that reliance on technology may be undermining their children’s desire and willingness to engage in-person and with the outside world. 

My one daughter liked going on the computer before but now she hate-loves it. They’re sick – physically sick – at being on the screen. We tried to take breaks away from it but even in the breaks they seemed to drift back to their phones 

Lookout participant

All they seem to do now is sit with digital devices. Face-to-face contact now seems alien to them

Lookout participant

No he hasn’t been [out in public] but when I’ve asked him to go with me somewhere you know, just to get him out the house: ‘No, I’ll stay here.’ I don’t think that’s because he’s worried about the virus; actually I think that’s because he just wants to stay indoors, you know, so…. it’s just the iPad the whole day

Bradford Research participant

Motivation and mental health

The effects of many months spent in physical separation and many hours spent on screen is starting to make its way into the media, and was highlighted by the young people we spoke with. There was shared agreement that learning and socialising online added to feelings of stress and removed the comforting buffer offered by time spent with friends in person. 

Some people would have a joyous mood in school but online I thought they seemed really low and down. I feel like they would have been better in school. I think the stress of work and not interacting with people made their mental health go down. 

Lookout participant

[I want adults to] take into consideration the students and the stress and what closing schools and doing things online does to our mental health.

Lookout participant

Particularly when reflecting on online schooling, parents reported that Zoom is not optimised for young people. The intensity of sitting in one place staring at a screen of floating faces was intimating for some, and off putting for most. 

Zoom is designed for adults, not for children. They’re not used to staring at each other, but instead mooching along with one another. That’s why online games are much more engaging. 

Lookout participant

Teachers and lecturers report that young people quickly turned their videos off. They weren’t comfortable sitting and staring at one another. This is something that we’ve noticed in the sessions we’ve held too – whilst most adults will turn their cameras on, young people seem more comfortable keeping them off. 

Because younger people learn faster and are often more technically savvy than older people, policy makers and service providers assume that they will be more confident and comfortable with everything online. In fact, Zoom invades privacy in a way that young people may feel much less comfortable with – everyone can see my bedroom, cat, mum, greasy hair. Perhaps this is a small consideration for online teaching but it is a bigger one for, for example, counselling services.

There is also agreement that young children – toddlers in particular – don’t learn as well on screens, because they don’t fully understand that screens are ‘real’ life. This chimes with one discussion participant’s concern that online lessons didn’t suit their youngest child, who needed a supportive one-to-one teacher relationship that got lost in group Zooms. Others told comparable stories of children losing focus and motivation without in-person social contact in their learning. 

A creative balm

The impact of screen time on young people’s relationships is clearly complex and depends on how they are using technology. Some forms of online activity seem better suited to relationship building, particularly those which offer the opportunity to interact through shared creativity. 

Young people have experienced some digital burnout when it comes to sitting on Zoom, but have really engaged in collaborative world making games and have made friendships

Lookout participant

The digital divide

Access to resources made a huge difference to people’s experiences [of the pandemic]

Lookout participant

Access to resources has been a key mediator of experiences of the pandemic. The so-called ‘digital divide’ has been starkly revealed and whilst some efforts were made to ensure young people had access to a laptop or computer, the divide has compounded pre-existing inequalities. For many young people, lacking good digital connectivity has damaged relationships, undermined educational opportunities and hindered their ability to access support services.

AYPH found that “young people in low income families/areas have had less access to technology to communicate with school and friends are more likely to have lost routines and sleep, and have seen more increases in children and young people’s mental-health problems than other families.” 

Share what you’ve seen

Does this resonate with what life has been like for the young people in your life? We’d love to hear from you, and directly from young people themselves. Please get in touch at hello@relationshipsproject.org or head to www.relationshipsproject.org/the-lookout to find out more about how to get involved.