Loneliness is on the rise in Hong Kong and the US as people are too busy to have friends

  • Social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic has made it difficult to maintain friendships, but they were already on the decline before it began
  • More people are relying on their families and romantic partners for support
Tribune News ServiceEmily Tsang |

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Modern life and being busy have made it difficult to keep friends, and the pandemic has only made the problem worse.

Before the pandemic, many of us kept up with friends by seeing them in class, playing sports, going to the mall, or eating together. But now, even social butterflies are seeing their circles of friends shrink.

Friendships are declining everywhere. And in the US, a recent American Perspectives Survey showed that people reported having fewer close friends than in previous years. About half of Americans said they had three or fewer close friends. Instead, they’re turning to parents and romantic partners for support.

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“People have lost ... those friends they saw once in a while. So it’s unsurprising that surface-level friendships have decreased since we haven’t been out as much,” psychologist and friendship expert Dr Marisa Franco says. She pointed to social distancing measures and lockdowns as adding to this.

In Hong Kong, children are the unhappiest they have been in at least five years, according to a finding by the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs Association in April. This is partly due to not being able to see friends amid the months of in-person class suspension at schools.

Having problems with friend and more feelings of loneliness are among the many reasons behind their unhappiness. Other reasons include disappointing academic results and other problems within their families, said the report which polled 750 children aged between six and 17.

Kids in Hong Kong say they're unhappy because they haven't been able to spend time with their friends during the pandemic.

Shasta Nelson, friendship expert and author of Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness, adds that many people faced significant personal challenges during the pandemic. As a result, they were more careful with deciding which friends were trustworthy.

But the pandemic isn’t only to blame for this change in people’s social groups. The American Perspectives Survey showed that friendships have been on the decline for years in the US. This is due to more Americans moving to different places, and spending more time working and taking care of children.

“The reality is they’re just too busy, and it’s hard to keep up with their non-essential relationships. And sadly, friendships tend to be the first relationships that people drop,” Franco says.

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Nelson also blames the mindset that treats “friendships as optional” and sees romantic or familial relationships as being the most important.

“We live in a society where we feel friendship is a luxury for when we have extra time. And when we feel pressured for time due to work or our home lives, friendships are what we don’t feel we have [time] to maintain,” she says.

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“In contrast, the belief is that our [families] will always be happy to hear from us, kind of like a safety net, even if we haven’t been good at reaching out.”

Though it’s not necessarily a bad thing to have fewer close friends, experts say it is important to surround ourselves with as many social support systems as possible.

Franco says that having different groups of friends helps us to experience different sides of our interests and personalities. This helps us grow and figure out who we want to be.

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Nelson adds it’s important to ask yourself if you need more love and support in your life.

“If the answer is yes, think about which friendships you can deepen in your life.”

There are some simple ways to reconnect with friends - even the distant ones, according to Nelson.

Some people are choosing to have fewer friends, but with stronger bonds.

Take these steps:

  • Prioritise who you miss: Don’t feel as if you need to reach out to everyone, but choose the people you really miss and want to connect with.
  • Make the effort to reach out: Apologise if you haven’t been there for your friends, and tell them how much you miss and value them.
  • Act on your words: Suggest a time to catch up. You can meet up after school, or set a time to play games together.
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