Why the Digital Age Is Not Destroying Friendship

The more media we use to maintain a relationship, the stronger that bond will likely be

Illustration: Sullivan Brown

HHas the overuse of the word “friend” devalued the relationships it describes? In a connected world, how valuable are our online relationships? Are we, in fact, disconnected from one another? Must we visit someone at home to call that person a true friend?

As a society, we are pondering the effects — psychological and physiological — of the digital age on relationships and on our psychological health. But we have reason for optimism about the relationship between digital technology and friendship. Many clickbait headlines (“Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”) and the (often only slightly) more sober scientific reports that give rise to those headlines are not actually about relationships. They grapple broadly with the effect of technology and social media on “well-being.” Furthermore, the results to date have been so mixed they amount to a scientific version of he said, she said. For every study that finds a rise in loneliness, there is another showing an increase in connection.

The first — and still only — major survey to explicitly examine the intersection of people’s social media use and their relationships both online and off-line was conducted for the Pew Research Center in 2011 and led by Keith Hampton, who is now at Michigan State University. Despite the worries over degraded and devalued relationships, the Pew survey of 2,255 adults found that people who were more active on social media had stronger relationships across the board. For instance, Facebook users had slightly more close relationships than nonusers. They got more social support — receiving advice, companionship, help when sick, and so on — than nonusers. “Someone who uses Facebook multiple times per day gets about half the boost in total support that someone receives from being married or living with a partner,” the researchers wrote. The Facebook users were also more politically engaged and more trusting.

Notably, Facebook served to revive “dormant” relationships. Whether you think this is a good trend or an annoying one, the persistence of these old relationships is new. It is one of the few places where Hampton sees a true historical difference in the effects of today’s technology versus previous innovations.

“We no longer predictably lose social ties from high school or when we leave one job and go on to another job or move from one neighborhood to another,” says Hampton. As a result, access to social support, stress, and opinion formation are all likely to be affected.

While long lists of Facebook friends obviously extend to the outer limits of people’s social networks and beyond, Hampton’s team found that a very small number of online friends might be considered strangers or people someone only met in person once. On the other hand, the researchers found that 40% of users had friended all of their closest confidants. In other words, they were friends online and off-line with those in their closest circle­.

The Pew researchers had to conclude that social media use seemed to support intimacy, not undermine it. “There is little validity to concerns that people who use [social networking sites] experience smaller social networks, less closeness, or are exposed to less diversity,” they wrote.

This result is also true of teenagers’ digital connections, despite so much anxiety to the contrary. Visual cues are missing online, and the artificial sense of distance and anonymity can result in saying and doing things kids wouldn’t dream of face-to-face. They get hurt and they inflict hurt. But that is due in part to adolescence itself. “The way that young people are connecting digitally mirrors the way that they connect off-line,” says psychologist Candice Odgers of the University of California, Irvine.

In fact, the core qualities of friendship for teenagers are as present on Instagram and Snapchat as they are in the school cafeteria. Kids reveal themselves online (appropriately, more with their good friends than acquaintances). They find validation and support for everything from getting an assignment to weathering their parents’ divorce. They enjoy companionship through sharing jokes and memes and playing games together. And, of course, there is conflict online just as there is off-line. Mean girls and bullies were not invented with the iPhone, although their potential reach has expanded exponentially. There is also conflict resolution online, though it hasn’t been much studied. Emoticons, for instance, help to clarify meaning in the absence of nonverbal cues.

NoNo matter our age, we, of course, need to be mindful of the effect being absorbed in our phones has on the people around us. Eye contact matters. It triggers the social networks in our brains and that helps us maintain the strong, quality relationships we need. That’s why adaptive practices like — for example — requiring dinner guests to put their phones in a basket at the start of a meal, or instituting a household-wide digital sabbath, are increasingly common and healthy.

We are learning to adjust to life with screens in ways that further protect relationships and make the most of our connections, online and off. It’s the kind of thing sociologist Claude Fischer of the University of California, Berkeley might have had in mind when he noted that people adapt themselves when they cannot change their environments, doing whatever is necessary to stay close to friends. Fischer has been studying social networks for decades and in 2010, he reviewed 40 years of research in his book Still Connected. Technology, he acknowledged, was the major change across that span, and the jury was still out on its effects when his book went to press. But he concluded that “for all the ‘lonely, friendless in America’ chatter in the media, the evidence suggests that friendship was as healthy in America in the 2000s as in the 1970s.”

What Fischer emphasized was that “people protect their core relationships.” Like our ape cousins, we’ve evolved to use the tools at our disposal to strengthen social bonds. And humans have the largest, most complex toolbox of all — modes of relationship-building well beyond mutual grooming or sharing food. While technology has changed some of the mechanisms we use to form and maintain friendships, it hasn’t changed the role that friendships play in our lives.

Social media has not cheapened our capacity for connection, nor has it distorted our understanding of what constitutes a friend. At the heart of the definition of friendship that biologists and sociologists have established is the acknowledgment that we treat our friends differently than we do acquaintances, and we differentiate between close friends and less intimate bonds. If we take our off-line concentric circles of connection and overlay them onto our online networks, it is usually the case that we are in touch with our closest friends and family in multiple ways.

“Most people’s online relationships are, in fact, relationships that are formed around real existing physical places that then migrate online,” Hampton says. “They’re school relationships, kin relationships, workplace relationships. The vast majority of online relationships start off-line.” Those that do originate online and become close also migrate to the real world. “We’re talking about a network of relationships that are maintained through multiple media. We talk to them on the phone, we see them in person. We share emails with them. And we are friends on Facebook.”

The more media we use to maintain a relationship, the stronger that bond is likely to be.

From Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond, by Lydia Denworth. Published by W.W. Norton & Company. Copyright © 2020 Lydia Denworth

Author of FRIENDSHIP: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond (Norton 2020). @LydiaDenworth and www.lydiadenworth.com

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