Friendship in the Age of Social Media

So many contacts yet so few friends
So many contacts yet so few friends

Recent research, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, has shown that the wellbeing of men and women, especially in midlife, depends on having a wide circle of friends, and lack of friends is associated with significantly lower levels of psychological wellbeing. Living in the era of hyper connectivity, with hundreds of “friends” on our social network, it is but logical to expect our mental wellbeing to be the best ever in the history of humanity. Is that true? Does our Facebook, twitter, LinkedIn, WhatsApp and multiple email accounts make us, as Aristotle defined friendship, a single soul dwelling in multiple bodies?

Being an old-fashioned, rather romantic digital immigrant myself, my knee-jerk reaction is an emphatic “no”. Friendship, in my mind, is forged in the fire of life experiences and shaped by memories that are unique and personal to the parties involved. My best friend continues to be the woman who ate my snacks in kindergarten and protected me from bullies and our friendship predates social media, nay, the Internet itself. My teenage kid begs to differ. Her friendships are sealed within the glowing screens of various dimensions. She is not an exception. According to Pew Research, two-thirds of teens surveyed made new friends on social media and as many teens share their social media username with real-life friends as a way to stay in touch. While I run to my friend’s house to avail of or lend a shoulder during tremulous times, 70% of teens surveyed use online social platforms to be connected to their friends’ feelings. Which of us is right, my kid or I? — Lakshmi, a Mobicip blogger and co-author of this article.
Tying friendship bands
Tying friendship bands

Oxford University psychology professor Robin Dunbar theorises that people can only maintain about 150 stable relationships, the number being now known as the Dunbar’s number. But even in the 150 so-called stable relationships, an average of 4.1 are dependable and 13.6 express sympathy during an “emotional crisis.” But is this a bad thing? One can play the devil’s advocate by quoting research published in the American Sociological Review in 2006, that the average American has only two real-life close friends. We don’t have numbers since then, but considering the drop from 3 close friends in 1985 to 2 in 2006, compounded by the proliferation of social media since then, the number of real-life friends could have only reduced further now. Thus, 4 dependable friends from a pool of 150 online is better than 2 or less in real life. Indeed, the Pew survey mentioned earlier, found that 68% of teens have received support on social media during challenges or tough times.

Is there a difference between real-life friendships and online friendships? It appears as if there is, although the line between the two is rather fuzzy. There is a large scope for online interactions to be pre-planned and therefore doctored to be in a certain way, which may not be possible in a more impulsive and immediate nature of real-life interactions. This could result in a façade to friendship that is not entirely reliable. Among teen social media users, who appear to be the largest group to endorse social media friendships, 85% concur that people tend to exhibit themselves differently on social media than in real life and 77% find people less authentic on social media than in real life. To an adult, the apparently contradictory views of teens – online friendship is good versus online friends are less authentic – is baffling. The expectations in friendship, or indeed in any relationship is, to a large extent, age-dependent.

To my teenage kid, a friend is someone that you can have fun with, and this expectation is free from the shackles of authenticity. To me, however, a friend is a confidante and support during all phases of life, which means that trust and honesty are included. In addition, perception of reciprocity becomes clearer with age. — Lakshmi, a Mobicip blogger and co-author of this article.

Children and youth assume that friendships they seek and nurture are reciprocated and thus sign up to “friending” requests, both online and offline, without a deep understanding of the relationship commitments involved. An adult, however, must know in no uncertain terms, that the trust and seriousness in friendship are two way streets, which take more than clicking the like button on a selfie, to establish.

Another feature of friendship is its hierarchical layered structure, the inner layers being closer and the outer layers moving towards acquaintances. Each layer of friendship reflects a different level of interaction and intimacy. While constraints of time and commitments make layering of friendship distinct in the egocentric real world, the layers overlap in social networking, given the time pervasiveness of the medium. Thus, while it is easier to classify real-life friends as “best friends to confide in”, “good friends to share a beer with”, and “acquaintances that you nod ‘ssup’ to”, such classification is difficult, if not impossible, online.

Having had a personal blog myself, in which I ranted more often than I would have liked, I was confiding to strangers, thoughts that, in the offline world, I would not have dreamed of offloading on anyone but my first layer friends. Does that make the strangers who empathized or sympathized with me in the comments section, my best friends – afterall, didn’t Jim Reeves sing that a stranger is just a friend you do not know? In the event of an emergency, would I be willing to entrust my daughter with them, rather than the BFF who ate all my cookies in kindergarten and has seen me through ups and downs in life with no judgments made and questions asked? — Lakshmi, a Mobicip blogger and co-author of this article.
Best friends catching up
Best friends catching up

No matter which side of the debate you are on, it is indeed indisputable that social media is a magnifying mirror of real life – transient, but surely reflective. In real life, we meet people, some of them stick on, some pass by, and the ones that stick around could, with the passage of time, traverse the layers and get into the inner most circle of our friendship. Others could be replaced or rejected, either by choice or chance; the seven year itch is not restricted to marriage, it seems – research has shown that we lose about half of our close network members every seven years. Social media is no different, except that the time scales of all of these processes are much more compressed than in real life – seven years is a lifetime in the digital world. It is best if we can extend friendships beyond the glowing screen in both ways – stay connected with real-time friends in cyber space as well as judiciously move on-screen friends into real life. But in all cases, it is best to remember what Ralph Waldo Emerson said - “The only way to have a friend is to be one.”

Writing credit: Co-authored by Lakshmi, a Mobicip blogger and researcher who dwells on the role that social media plays on relationships in life.

Mobicip is the creator of the most powerful and extensive internet safety software for tablets, smartphones and computers in households today. Learn more at

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