Why are young people afraid of making friends?
It’s said that making friends gets harder the older you get.
People settle into their existing friendships, forged during childhood or at university, through work or common friends.
With other life priorities taking over as we age, we also find less time to hang out with friends and many people tighten their social circles to include only those they’re very close with (as opposed to casual party friends or acquaintances).
However, new research suggests that young people are the ones struggling to build new platonic relationships.
According to a recent survey commissioned by Whistle Punks through YouGov, which included 2,000 participants aged 18 to 55, the age group that felt least confident in chatting to strangers was those aged 18 to 24 (65%).
Similarly, it was found that 59% of millennials spend more time chatting to friends on social media than they do seeing them in the flesh.
Are young people afraid to make friends? Or have we simply lost the social skills required to do so?
Author and expert on all things friendship, Kate Leaver, who also writes a weekly friendship column for Metro.co.uk, tells us the issue is that young people have grown up in a society that encouraged them not to talk to strangers – and as a result, not to make new friends.
‘Young people are not confident speaking to strangers because they’re scared of rejection, but also because we’ve really been socially conditioned not to,’ said Kate.
‘Baby boomers and previous generations had a much stronger sense of community and belonging in public, shared spaces. We don’t have as much access to that because the way we structure our modern lives means we are less in touch with our communities and the people around us.
‘Shared public spaces like parks and libraries and village halls – places where people might comfortably approach a stranger – are being shut down. We’re more likely to live far away from our families and traditional support networks.
‘We haven’t normalised the act of going up to someone we don’t know in the hope of striking up a friendship. We don’t even make eye contact on the tube. We are living more segregated lives, which of course partially explains our loneliness epidemic.
‘We might be happy, as young people, to speak to strangers online and on social media, where we feel more fearless and confident, but in person it’s daunting and unfamiliar. It’s just not something we’ve been taught to do, especially as we use our phone and computer screens as a bit of a security shield, protecting us from explicit rejection.’
Laura, 27, hates meeting new people and tells us she’s always felt this way.
The majority of her friendship group is from university days, and she doesn’t want to approach new people because she’s afraid of what they might think of her.
‘I honestly can’t remember the last time I made a new friend,’ she tells us.
‘There’s lots of friends of friends who I’ll chat to when we run into each other, but there aren’t really any people who I have met in the last few years that I meet up with or chat to on a regular basis.
‘All my friends have been around for at least the last two years.
I really struggle with the initial bit of meeting new people. I’m pretty chatty and open when I get to know someone and I understand them a bit more, but during that first meeting I’m very shy.
‘I get very anxious about what to talk about, having something in common and people judging me or just not really understanding my sense of humour. Additionally, I’m intimidated by most people until I really figure them out.
‘I hate going to events where I don’t know anyone and have avoided things I want to do or gone and left before the event starts because of that anxiety.’
But not all young people feel the same way.
Hayley, who turns 31 next month, regularly meets people in unusual ways and makes friends with them.
While on holiday in Ibiza, she met a woman who ended up becoming her bridesmaid.
‘I was invited to a party in 2017 in Ibiza for a weekend and stayed in an Airbnb villa that my friend had chosen,’ she tells us.
‘There was to be a small group of us (turned out to be about 20 people) and Merri was one of them.
‘I instantly clicked with her and spent the weekend getting to know her.
‘She’s to be one of my bridesmaids now.’
If technology, social media and smartphones are what stands in the way of people bonding, perhaps we should look towards spaces where we don’t have access to the internet?
For instance, on a plane (though admittedly most aircrafts now offer WiFi with patchy service).
‘I became good friends with someone who I met on the plane,’ she tells us.
‘It just shows how you can really connect when you’re offline and really present.
‘Not glued to an app or zoning out of your actual surroundings’
Other people tell us of similar experiences, including another on a plane and one at a business networking event.
If you’re comfortable with your current friendship situation, that’s great and you do you.
But, if you do want to expand your social circle and are hesitant about how to proceed, here are some quick tips.
Avoid awkward silences by searching for people with common interests – join a book club, a local sports team or a knitting crew.
If the idea of group hang-outs is too stressful, there are a range of new friendship apps that you can use (which also give you the advantage of being online).
Or, if you dare, strike up a conversation with someone in a public place: a cafe, the local pub or even at church, if that’s your thing.
Do remember however, there’s nothing wrong with preferring your own company or having just one best friend.
In fact, it’s completely OK if you don’t have any best friends.
So long as you’re happy, that’s all that matters.
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