Gabriella Chase’s family WhatsApp group has its ups and downs. Chase’s dad is quite religious, so she and her sisters sometimes ignore the chat when topics become too controversial. In recent weeks, though, the family had mostly been sharing memes and jokes to keep their spirits up during the pandemic. That was until one day, when Chase's brother used the family WhatsApp to share that their mum had coronavirus.
“It was a very powerless moment,” Chase tells me over the phone. “That kind of anxiousness probably paralysed me to the extent that I wasn't able to properly express my sadness.”
Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, families across the world have been forced to rely on digital communication in lieu of real-life interaction. While the family WhatsApp was an established phenomenon long before the pandemic, its role in helping us to stay in touch with loved ones has intensified. In February this year, WhatsApp announced that it had reached two billion users globally – no doubt in part due to its usage during the early stage of the crisis. Without the ability to visit siblings, parents or grandparents, the family group chat becomes a daily source of intel, as well as a way to feel close to those we're separated from during lockdown. However, as the importance of the family WhatsApp increases, so do the problems that come with managing any familial interaction.
For Chase, finding out about her mother’s potentially life-threatening illness over the group chat was a shock, but working out how to respond was also a challenge. “I had to think about everything quite logically, rather than just react,” she says. “Emotions are infectious and you have to be very deliberate now about how you react to people's news, because you don't know whether they're coming to you to be consoled or just giving you info. You can't assume anything, because you have to wait for the wording to reassure you.”
While it was strange to learn of such upsetting news over WhatsApp, Chase understands why her brother communicated in this way. “I totally get it, because [my brother] was dealing with someone suffering with COVID-19, he didn't really have time to properly process, he just had to [message]” she says.
Chase's mum has now recovered from coronavirus.
While some have had to manage stressful conversations over the family WhatsApp as a result of coronavirus, others find the messaging platform an invaluable way to support family members who are front-line workers.
“[My] mum is a care home nurse, so my sister and I have been in contact on [WhatsApp] quite a lot to make sure she’s alright and that she’s supported,” Rob Saunders tells me. “Around week three of the lockdown, she had symptoms (she's recovered now, thankfully) and that’s when the chat started to get harder to talk in, because you just have this anxiety about everything.”
As the weeks have gone on, the group chat has given structure to Saunders’ life: “It feels like the chat is important to everyone in it. It keeps people in a routine.”
“[It’s been] very valuable,” he adds. “Obviously, you can message people separately but having me and my sister able to get the same message from my mum at the same time, to make sure she was alright, saved any miscommunication. Also, we all make each other laugh which is nice, keeping all our spirits up among the uncertainty.”
Not everyone has enjoyed increased communication with family members, however. Elsie’s* family WhatsApp group, which includes her mum, brother and two sisters, became toxic after her brother started sharing coronavirus conspiracy theories. Eventually, the family had to delete the group.
“It's always been a controversial place – my family WhatsApp group – because my brother is quite alt-right,” Elsie tells me over the phone. “We've had a ‘no politics’ rule after Brexit because it all kicked off and there was constant conflict."
Despite the rules, when the pandemic began, tensions started to build again.
“[My brother] started flouting the lockdown, saying that rules are made to be broken, which caused a big row,” she explains. “He was just posting on the WhatsApp group, first the 5G stuff, [then he posted] something about how coronavirus isn't real and it's manufactured by the government to mind control. At that point, I was just like, 'That's enough. I don't want to have to be exposed to this crap while also having to deal with the lockdown.' So I left.”
For Elsie, conflict with her family over WhatsApp was too much to process during the pandemic. “It just felt like another horrible thing in an already horrible situation. [It] meant my tolerance was much lower than it would have been otherwise,” she says. “Every time I saw that he was typing, or that he had posted something into the group, I just got this sinking feeling. I just didn't have the energy.”
Managing complex relationships with family members can be hard at the best of times – COVID or no COVID. For some, having the ability to communicate with vulnerable relatives or parents working on the front line is critical. For others, pre-existing conflicts are intensified in a group chat that plays out against a global pandemic. Sometimes, taking a break from WhatsApp and figuring out a healthy amount of family interaction is best.
Elsie’s family WhatsApp group hasn’t been resurrected since the argument with her brother. Will she and her relatives ever form a new one?
“I don't know,” she says. “I think it will eventually, but [my brother’s] such a volatile person, I just don't think he can be trusted with having that access to everyone. I'm not sure what will happen.”
*Some names have been changed.