Friendship and Technology; an INClusive perspective
Personally, I think friendship is undervalued; the social connections and face-to-face interactions that some of us make both at work and in our personal lives aren’t always truly appreciated until we no longer have them - perhaps as many of us have been forced to experience this year.
About a month into my placement, Steph asked me to research the importance of friendship in the context of technology. So off I went, trawling through various academic journals, articles and research studies. We can all understand what friendship is; at a simplistic level, a supportive connection with others. But what would happen without it? During my research, I learnt that not only is it vital for the social development and mental health of children, but that it is also linked with improved levels of life satisfaction for older people. But during my four months at INC, I’ve seen the importance of friendship in a variety of areas - not just during my research.
Friendship & INC as a Service Provider:
At my interview, Steph made it clear that she didn’t want her company to replace human connection. She told me that she’d made the company to support it, and provide forms of connection for when social events and in-person interactions were not always accessible. I saw this during our recent pilot workshops - the kids instantly wanted to discuss what they’d seen after they’d watched the immersive video, and excitedly bonded over what they’d all experienced together even though they hadn’t been physically in the virtual world together.
Whilst conducting our research interviews Ellie, the senior researcher, and I found that most professionals clearly stated that one of the key things that most children had missed out on during the pandemic was social interaction with their peers - as was also reported during focus groups that we held with the children themselves. One professional also noted that their young family members had grown up very quickly during the pandemic because they hadn’t had much interaction with people their own age, and noted that:
“I think a lot of it is they've just missed out on being kids, they’ve missed out on that exploration of being a child and discovering new things” - J, a primary school teacher in training
For those in certain situations, this isn’t something that only happens during a pandemic. This is an issue that INC seeks to remedy. As you can see on the website, INC is all about bringing people back into a community where they would otherwise be excluded with immersive video.
So then, a necessary question to ask, and for me to research, was: What was the basis for INC’s vision, and was it backed up by research? Well, a blog post from me wouldn’t really be complete without a little academic-y section, so below are some paraphrased extracts from a report I created about whether technology really does support friendships:
What can technology do for friendships?
Technology, in some ways, has been presented as damaging to childhood by some members of the academic community. Some research suggests that reliance on technology arguably results in extensive screen time and too little outside play. But, the benefits of technology in sustaining and developing friendships appears to outweigh potential negatives. An extensive report I read on digital friendships in young people involved a survey of 2000 young people aged 8-17 years old in the United Kingdom. It found that whilst friendships that incorporate technology can be complex, the majority of young people reported positive experiences online. 54% also stated that they would feel isolated if they did not have technology to support social interaction. In some ways then, technology can aid peer group inclusion and strengthen friendships. Whilst the report also found that roughly half had also had bad experiences online, the solution cannot be to remove technology altogether; in the current digital age, the report also stated that technology is now “embedded” in our lives. Authors of the report, from the UK Safer Internet Centre, suggested that technology and how young people use it must also be monitored in some ways, and that young people must be supported to ensure that individuals have the most beneficial experience possible. INC360 therefore seeks to amplify the social inclusion that technology can stimulate, whilst providing valuable educational benefits using immersive video.
Technology, friendships as adults and mental health
Technology can also enhance and support adult friendships. At the beginning of the pandemic, a study by researchers Rogers & Cruickshank carried out in Australia found that whilst most reported no change in the quality of their relationships, those who did report an improvement were also more likely to have used technology to keep in contact:
Source: Rogers and Cruickshank (2020)
Those whose relationships had deteriorated also reported poor mental health. Whilst the researchers noted that this data was collected in April 2020 in the early stages of COVID-19, and since then patterns may have changed, their research points to how valuable technology can be in maintaining relationships even during unprecedented circumstances. Rogers specifically also commended developments in virtual reality in potentially furthering this valuable link, whilst a further academic called Nicholas Munn argued that the shared experience of immersive virtual reality can be “a core element in the formation of friendships”. Given the opportunity, an expansion of INC360’s services therefore has a strong potential to also benefit a large range of age groups by aiding new connections in the local community, whilst potentially improving levels of wellbeing for a wide variety of individuals.
Disability, friendship and technology
I found that some studies on disability, friendship and technology implied that technology can establish friendships that would otherwise not occur, potentially due to stigma. Whilst this primarily relates to visible disabilities, some studies such as the one linked above portrayed that mobile technology can also allow those with both invisible and visible disabilities to disclose the disability as and when they choose. Technology can also heighten feelings of companionship, for example some speech generating devices can improve levels of communication with others. The use of technology to improve levels of communication can provide and enhance levels of autonomy and empowerment, therefore strengthening a sense of self. INC360 seeks to enhance feelings of companionship, using immersive video to allow those who are unable to leave their homes, permanent residences, or clinical settings to have experiences with others that they would otherwise not be able to have, and seeks to enhance friendship connections within the local community.
Other work also by Rogers, such as his article in Forbes magazine, suggests that the increasing body of valuable virtual reality platforms and apps has resulted in a degree of certainty in the technology community that the future of social connection lies in the hands of virtual reality. Therefore, expanding INC360’s services would prove to be highly beneficial in a variety of ways. If given the opportunity, INC360 could enhance and broaden levels of social inclusion for a variety of groups in society, whilst potentially improving levels of mental health and personal development
Friendship in the INC360 (virtual) workplace
By the end of my placement I realised that friendship and by association compassion and empathy, wasn’t just a business interest for INC. For any of you that have me on social media, you'll know that I gush about INC relatively often. INC isn't just a company that focuses on its services, it also truly values the people who work for it, and in many ways treats them as you would a good friend. When I first went for the job I didn't think I was qualified enough (watch our webinar to hear more about this from me and the team), but during my placement I never felt underqualified; I always felt like a valued equal. Mental health was widely spoken about and respected, and if one of us needed a mental health day we'd take it with no shame (as it should be). I genuinely hope to stay in contact with the pilot team, and to all future employees: you'll have an absolute rewarding blast working for INC360.
So then, there's a clear positive correlation between the importance of technology in improving and enhancing friendships, especially in the technological age we live in today; INC360's services are indeed backed up and rooted in strong academic research. But friendship, compassion, empathy and kindness doesn't end with INC's delivery of its services, it is genuinely at the heart of their ethics and beliefs, and is reflected in all areas of the business.