Photo for illustrative purposes Image Credit: Unsplash

The conversation begins with a click. And a tap. Wait, there may be a lag. And you are looking into someone’s nostrils. Camera adjustments are required. Finally, the fun can begin.

Welcome to the world of chatting in 2021. This past year has worn a pandemic filter, creating circles of solitude among friends and acquaintances and making sure that the only dialogue we have is through screens.

Phone calls and WhatsApp and Microsoft Teams and Zoom exchanges have been around for some time but had always played a supporting role to one-on-one meetings, until COVID-19 intervened.

I came to realise that a lot of people were friends just because I met them so often.

- Kanushri Jaiswal

Now, friendships – like workspaces – are mutating; whittling down the lists of those we are close to. And this is especially true for our kids, who once were used to meeting and greeting their fellows in class every working day and sometimes over weekends.

Kanushri Jaiswal, an 18-year-old who spent a year mostly at home, says a lot of friendships develop because of location – being somewhere at the same time as other people. “You didn’t have to make an effort to maintain relationships. We didn’t have to make plans to meet people. [There has been a] shift in relationships. I came to realise that a lot of people were friends just because I met them so often.”

Now, she muses, “I have deeper friendships, but fewer friends.”

The realisation came slowly and it began over a Zoom call. “I remember when the pandemic just began we would have Zoom meetings and watch Marvel movies, and we used to call it MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) nights. There were about eight people [in this group]. I could feel [myself] fading away from others [friends who were not of this group], probably because we used to talk every night.”

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing however, she says. “It’s a good thing – this shift. This is the kind of thing that you realise when you go off to college, but we got it a year earlier."

We need our friends

Friendships are important not least because of the comfort and support they can offer. They also give one a sense of belonging and they help build self-esteem. They can also provide sounding boards when you feel you need them the most.

In 2020 June, months after the pandemic had set in, a survey of 1,011 US parents published in the international journal ‘Pediatrics’, 14 per cent said their kids’ behaviour had deteriorated since March. And as per a study published in 'JAMA Pediatrics' in April 2020, 23 per cent of elementary school students in Hubei province in China were already showing signs of depression.

In the UAE, where vaccines once approved were swiftly deployed and bubbles were created for safe interaction, the ramifications may not have been so dire; however, children, did suffer feelings of isolation and loneliness.

It was perhaps the youngest that hurt the most, for interaction is what fuels learning and reinforces development, not to mention it helps them learn how to navigate the quagmire of social situations. Scientists found – and published - in a 2020 'Nature Neuroscience' study a correlation between social isolation and development of the prefrontal cortex, which regulates social behaviour in adults.

Developmental issues

Mum-of-three, Maria Farrukh, says her youngest son, who is three, suffered the most from the restrictions imposed by COVID-19. “When school started, I chose to keep Mustafa home because he’s too young and he was to go to a Montessori where I wasn’t sure of masking. For six months he stayed at home – he was a late speaker…. [he suffered because] social interaction was missing.”

Farrukh says even once school opened up, social distancing measures took a toll on how her children communicated with others – hugging, shaking hands and even standing too close were forbidden. “My son [12-year-old Mekyle], who had many friends, has narrowed down his friends circle because of circumstances, so it’s boiled down to two people. He only meets people in our compound. My ten-year-old daughter [Minahil] was very upset because when school reopened she was to sit in her own chair and not even meet other kids. [She had] no interaction, she could only to speak to the person in front of her.

Maria Sarrukh
Maria Farrukh with her family.

“Gradually, things became a bit better – [the school] introduced 10-minute interactions. [When] vaccinations became more common, people became more comfortable with these talks,” she adds.

Those with siblings close to their own age were also brought closer by circumstances.

A Dubai-based mum of twins says that having someone the same age around is really helpful when it comes to keeping a kid’s spirit up. “They [the twins] could understand [each other’s] worries and concerns better – we [adults] look at a problem as an adult and kids have their own perspective.”

Now that we’ve done both – online and face-to-face [conversations] – we’ve learnt that they are both easy ways of communication.

- Lottie Holt

Now as the summer break leans in and communication channels grow thanks to a greater number of vaccinations, children and teens look forward to meeting their friends again and getting back to the old ways. “I think our friendships have definitely changed; obviously, we couldn’t see our friends in person for a very long time,” says 14-year-old Lottie Holt. “It was difficult the first time we met in person after just having spoken to each other through a computer screen, but for me it didn’t take long to get over that awkwardness. And now that we’ve done both – online and face-to-face – we’ve learnt that they are both easy ways of communication.”

And yet, she says, “For me, face to face is what works best.”