“We lived on farms, we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the Internet.”
– Sean Parker, The Social Network, 2010
In his book titled “True Friendship”, Vaughan Roberts describes a true friend as being constant: being constantly committed to the friendship, learning to manage the uncomfortable, inevitable conflicts and challenges within, while also enjoying the joyful moments together (Roberts, 2013). These journeys are long and arduous processes that require consistent effort and attention across extended periods of time, but the emotional rewards they offer, like intimacy and trust, are definitely worthwhile.
Social media platforms appear to be useful tools to help build meaningful friendships and alleviate social isolation. These platforms offer boundless opportunities to connect with others. People can chat with friends across the world through instant messaging apps or keep updated on another person’s activities through social media apps like Facebook and Instagram. The typical user spends 2.5 hours a day on social media platforms, translating to a full waking day of their life per week (Kemp, 2021).
Lonely in a Crowded Room
However, various studies have suggested how social media platforms fail to alleviate the effects of depression and loneliness that come from social isolation, despite users being able to interact with larger social circles on the internet (Donnelly & Kuss, 2016; Cooper, 2004; Song et al., 2014). In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic in Singapore, one article addresses how people attempt to use social media to curb loneliness in the “lockdown” periods (Ng, 2021). Ironically, it highlights how users may unwittingly fall into the trap of “mining social validation” instead of making genuine connections with friends, where we become addicted to the drug-like dopamine hits (Haynes, 2018) that come from posting glamorous photos and being rewarded with “likes” on our personal online profiles.
Social media can be useful in maintaining deeper connections, allowing individuals to convey these authentic emotions with their friends online, on top of their offline interactions.
In today’s fast-paced, instant-gratification climate, we as individuals seem to have lost the patience that comes with building deep, lasting friendships. We convince ourselves that we are keeping up with our friends’ lives through their social media posts, but rarely do we take the time to check in on the significant struggles and hardships they may be experiencing offline. The online interactions of today, often characterised by excessively manicured photos and “brag posts”, may not reflect the authenticity, depth and trust that we desire in offline, candid social experiences with others, due to insincere or “too-perfect” portrayals of ourselves (Fröding & Peterson, 2012). Consequently, people struggle to find closeness and warmth in these relatively superficial online exchanges, leading to greater stress and frustration as they question the quality of their virtual friendships.
Disconnect to Connect
From an evolutionary perspective, psychologists Tooby & Cosmides (1996) suggest that humans have adapted to build trust and closeness through consistent physical exchanges that convey investment and commitment in each other’s lives, especially in times of need. Perhaps this explains why consoling a friend post-breakup over the phone is never the same as being there with them, patiently listening and hugging it out; there seems to be this indescribable “feeling” of warmth that comes with physical interaction. In short, social media does not fully replace the meaningful connections that go beyond convenient exchanges of “retweets” and “shares” to satisfy a deeper longing for authentic engagement in our lives.
Authenticity is Key
Is it possible then to deepen existing relationships online? Recent studies have highlighted how social media can effectively supplement offline relationships, giving individuals an additional medium to express their genuine care and concern for each other (Valkenburg & Peter, 2007). Adolescents who spent more time on social media for communicative purposes (i.e. instant messaging with friends) also exhibited lower levels of depression over time, as compared to those who spent more time browsing through posts (Selfhout et al., 2009). It appears that social media can be useful in maintaining these deeper connections, to the extent that individuals can convey these authentic emotions with their friends online, on top of their offline interactions.
Social media is certainly not going away any time soon. Perhaps it may be worthwhile to reflect on how we are using social media today. Do we find ourselves aimlessly scrolling through our newsfeeds? Do we care about what goes on in our friends’ lives, or are we more concerned with the greater number of “likes” they are getting on their posts? How can we better use social media platforms to express our genuine concern and affection to the people we truly cherish?
We need true friends to give us the trust and interdependence to support us through this crippling pandemic and other life challenges. Let us as a society continue to cherish deep, meaningful relationships with others, lest we gradually, albeit mistakenly, replace the lasting rewards of these authentic connections with convenient forms of superficial, short-term connectedness over social media.
Daniel is a senior year Psychology student from Singapore Management University (SMU), where he is concurrently pursuing his Master’s degree. In his free time, he enjoys reading books on philosophy and literature.
- Cooper, N. S. (2004). The identification of psychological and social correlates of Internet use in children and teenagers. Alliant International University, Los Angeles.
- Donnelly, E., & Kuss, D. J. (2016). Depression among users of social networking sites (SNSs): The role of SNS addiction and increased usage. Journal of Addiction and Preventive Medicine, 1(2), 107.
- Fröding, B., & Peterson, M. (2012). Why virtual friendship is no genuine friendship. Ethics and Information Technology, 14(3), 201-207.
- Haynes, T. (2018, May 1). Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A battle for your time. Harvard University: Science In The News (SITN). https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2018/dopamine-smartphones-battle-time/.
- Kemp, S. (2021). Digital 2021: Global Overview Report – DataReportal – Global Digital Insights. DataReportal. https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2021-global-overview-report.
- Ng, C. W. (2021, February 9). Commentary: On social media, life amid coronavirus risks becoming a popularity contest. CNA. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/commentary/coronavirus-covid-19-social-media-addiction-popularity-contest-12753560.
- Roberts, V. (2013). True friendship: walking shoulder to shoulder. 10 Publishing.
- Selfhout, M. H., Branje, S. J., Delsing, M., ter Bogt, T. F., & Meeus, W. H. (2009). Different types of Internet use, depression, and social anxiety: The role of perceived friendship quality. Journal of adolescence, 32(4), 819-833.
- Song, H., Zmyslinski-Seelig, A., Kim, J., Drent, A., Victor, A., Omori, K., & Allen, M. (2014). Does Facebook make you lonely?: A meta analysis. Computers in Human Behavior, 36, 446-452.
- Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1996). Friendship and the banker’s paradox: Other pathways to the evolution of adaptations for altruism. In W. G. Runciman, J. M. Smith, & R. I. M. Dunbar (Eds.), Evolution of social behaviour patterns in primates and man (pp. 119–143). Oxford University Press.
- Valkenburg, P. M., & Peter, J. (2007). Preadolescents’ and adolescents’ online communication and their closeness to friends. Developmental psychology, 43(2), 267.