Back in 2013, Gabby Frost was a big One Direction fan—so big that she and a friend created an online community to engage with others who loved the popular boy band. “We went on Twitter and made friends with a lot of people,” recalls Frost.
When Frost came across tweets from people contemplating self-harm or suicide, it troubled her. “I sent them support, but there wasn’t anything in place that I knew of that was a support tool,” says the North Penn High School grad. “So I thought, ‘Why not create a way for people to get paired up with a buddy based on their interests?’”
Now 22, Frost was just 15 when she officially launched Buddy Project, an online platform aimed at forging relationships among teens and young adults. It also directs those in need to hotlines for everything from suicide to eating disorders to postpartum depression. “I think the main pressing issue kids have these days is constant engagement with social media,” says Dr. Megan Starner, a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist who works out of Bryn Mawr Hospital and also has a private practice in Haverford. “There’s always pressure to perform, produce content and be available 24/7. A lot of times, energy goes into this kind of online image instead of working on more personal relationships.”
It can be especially tough for those in their early 20s. “Once people lose their college structure, being engaged and connected to people is really hard,” Starner says.
Within hours of Buddy Project’s launch, 3,000 people had signed up, largely thanks to Frost’s 50,000-plus followers. Through its website, Buddy Project pairs people based on selected interests, which initially were limited to things like movies, TV shows and bands. Today, there are dozens of options based on religion, country of origin, culture, sexual identity, and hobbies like photography, poetry and reading. “People have such niche interests, and they want to connect with people that have an interest that’s not really common,” says Frost. “We’ve expanded to include things such as LGBTQ identities.”
Frost’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Earlier this year, she was named a 2019 College Woman of the Year by Glamour magazine. She’s also part of the American Eagle AExME Council, an advisory group of nine leaders from around the country.
Related Article: Shared Experiences Offer Psychological Benefits
A senior at Drexel University, Frost is studying the music industry with a concentration in business. “I really want to do social impact in the music industry,” she says.
Online relationships have drawbacks—namely that you can’t always be sure whom you’re interacting with. But they also have benefits. “I’ve seen people actually form some real connections with people on internet gaming systems,” says Starner. “I had one teen who told me that she found an environment online where she feels she can talk openly about what she’s experiencing without judgment. That’s been very useful for her.”
And young people like Frost can make a difference. “Kids spend a lot of time with each other, and they open up to each other,” she says. “I’ve found that a lot of kids who are open with their peers about what they’re experiencing often get a really supportive response they may not have expected. I think this generation really wants to help each other.”
If Frost is any indication, that’s certainly true. Once paired through Buddy Project, those 13 or older can connect online and choose whether to take the relationship to a different platform by texting or FaceTiming. “In the best cases, people end up getting so close that they actually do end up meeting,” says Frost, who’s paired over 236,000 buddies.
Some matches have even traveled to different countries. “It’s amazing to see people connect,” says Frost.
Frost has included a fundraising component for mental health programs in southeastern Pennsylvania, and she hopes to expand outside the region in the future. She has even taken the program offline, recruiting campus representatives at middle schools, high schools and colleges around the country. The goal is to raise awareness of mental health issues in the communities.
For now, though, Frost hopes that simply discussing mental health in a public forum helps to break down the stigma. “We’re really just fostering a conversation on social media,” she says.