How Social Media Warped My Understanding of Friendship
Illustration by Juliana Vido; follow her on Instagram @julianavido.

Like many parents before them, mine were fond of assuring me that whatever social drama I endured in high school wouldn’t matter in the long run. After all, I’d “never see those people again.” They had no way of knowing just how untrue that old adage would become — not only for me, but my whole generation (and eventually, theirs).

Now, over a decade later, I’m friends with my third-grade crush on Facebook. Several former high school teachers regularly chime in on posts that I share. The idea that we meet people, hang out with them for a few years and then carry on feels like a myth.

What’s nice is that, because we’re so connected, friendships don’t seem as likely to fade away. Yet while I may be in constant touch with everyone from childhood pals to close friends, it’s in totally superficial ways. Social media is a convenient supplement when you can’t give a friend IRL attention — but is that adequate? Sometimes I get so caught up in my own life I pat myself on the back for leaving a nice comment when I should probably have made a phone call or planned a visit instead.

This habit developed over time: I graduated college, worked more jobs than I can remember and moved just as often. With so many peripheral responsibilities, socializing began to feel like both a chore and a guilty pleasure. “Staying in touch” took a back seat. Author Tim Kreider described this in The New York Times as the ‘busy’ trap:

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day,” Kreider wrote. And busy, indeed I was, devoting only the smallest amount of energy toward maintaining friendships and replacing worthwhile relationships with other responsibilities. As time wore on, I felt increasingly unfulfilled in the best friend realm.

The truth was, I had a whole handful of reliable girls on call, if only I’d just take the time to reach out. These were the very same ones who’d made several trips to see me, yet I never dealt with the hassle of returning the favor. I had a growing list of excuses mentally stowed away to justify why: time, energy, the belief that my city was more worth visiting than theirs. Snobby, I know, but there I was. And where I was, exactly, was kind of lonely.

“I miss you” texts were sent at least once a month. “When are you coming again?” I asked each of my best girlfriends as seasons slipped by. Each time, the response was virtually the same: “It was so much fun last time. I’m not sure!” Each time, I felt a little more deflated.

I liked their selfies, their posts about finishing school, the articles they shared. Everything. But the reality of the situation was, I’d reduced our interactions to the lowest common denominator, substituting a phone call with compliments on Instagram. I was not giving back in any meaningful way, and I was paying a price for it, growing more isolated as time went on.

I grew up glued to books and movies like Anne of Green Gables and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, stories that touted the idea of “kindred spirits,” or friendships that had some sort of fated, soulmate aspect to them. From them, I adopted the idea that if friendships were meant to be, they’d just work out, somehow. It’s taken a while to sink in, but I’m finally appreciating that this approach to friendship is just as fantastical an idea as “happily ever after.” Friendships, much like romantic relationships, require effort and nurturing.

I’ll be the first to argue that social media has been a total boon for the art of communication, but it took me embarrassingly long to realize that “liking” and commenting were not a valid way to nurture my friendships — especially when my friends were demonstrably willing to spend time, money and energy to nurture their friendship with me. If I wanted these friendships that I cared so much about to last, I had to learn to put in the effort. Acting as though my responsibilities were more important than theirs would not cut it. I’m no saint for realizing this, but I’m working on it, and I’m lucky to have some very patient friends.

Now, I remind myself that an Instagram like is just that: an Instagram like. It doesn’t replace phone calls or girls’ weekends away together. Despite what Mark Zuckerberg may say, relying on social media to stay connected is not, in fact, a sustainable way to maintain a friendship. And while I’m still as tuned-in as ever, I’m going out of my way to tend to my IRL friendships the way that they should be tended to: in real life.

Monica Busch is a Massachusetts-born writer, currently based in New York. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter @somethingmonica.

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  • Rachel Dlugatch

    I relate to this sooo much- I also crave the kinds of close friendships in those films and feel like I don’t have them as much as I used to. My friends are scattered all over the place–so many different countries, states, cities, time zones… it’s a challenge. How do other people try to maintain these friendships other than through social media, the kinds of friendships that can’t easily be tended to irl? I’ve recently started sending handwritten letters, but I’m not sure what else to do. Even though they’re often short, I still think that it shows a kind of thoughtfulness that a “like” or casual fb message can’t accomplish. Anyone else have thoughts?

  • kate

    i literally made a disqus account to comment because i agree with this so much! I am 25 and had this exact realization recently as well. several friends moved away, and months later i was lamenting that we felt distant– i hadn’t picked up the phone to call them ONCE. i felt guilty and lazy, and i knew i was getting into a pattern i would regret (not to be overly dramatic) but maybe for the rest of my life?? relationships require not constant communication but i think DELIBERATE communication. Sometimes calling people can feel like an imposition on them (bc there are so many other “easier” ways to communicate)– but i would rather my friends think i’m annoying (in a good way) than think that i take them for granted.~*~*~*

  • I feel like we’re going through exactly the same thing. It’s like you read my mind.

    I’ve also been moving a lot, and ever since high-school, i’ve increasingly lost touch with some of my greatest friends, even though we talk “every so often” on Facebook, and are planning meet ups NEXT YEAR. YEAR!!! Our “busy” lives get in the way, and sometimes it feels like there is no way around it. I’m hoping by the time I officially graduate, I’ll have more time & money to go see them – even though we’re in different countries.

    Anyway, moral of the story is, as you said it — friendships, especially those that you really care about, NEED to be nurtured IRL!!

    Thanks for this article. You said it so well!

    Meg @ its.meg-ramsay.com

  • Rachel

    This post really hit hard, I can relate so much! I feel like I’ve lost touch with my closest and oldest friends being so “busy” with work, school and boyfriends. I often think that maybe those friendship have just run their course because even though we’ve known each other forever we really don’t have much in common anymore. However, I’ve also lost touch with my best friends from university that I have so much in common. Everyone moving around the world made it so difficult to connect. With all these technologies at our disposal it should be easy to keep up with everyone and connect but it really does take effort to send a quick message, plan a Skype date or have a girls night.

  • Adrianna

    The best part about social media is that it’s voluntary

  • Emily

    I agree with all of this- I miss the days of spending hours chatting about nothing on the landline. I’m having a weird, opposite problem right now though. I’m in a kinda weird, tense place with a good friend, and get reminded of all my mad/hurt feelings whenever she posts on social media. I don’t want to unfollow because 1. it feels drastic and 2. I have a lot of hope we could reconcile things and don’t wanna burn that bridge, but it’s also so painful to see her posts! I’m not sure what to do. I think in an age before social media this wouldn’t have sucked so much.

    • Twitter and Facebook make it really easy to “unfollow” with your friend remaining none the wiser. I wish insta had a feature like this. I have been in your situation before and it is a hard pill to swallow. I hope you guys do reconcile!

      For what it’s worth, my friend unfollowed me (I realized and then unfollowed her) and when we eventually did reconnect, it was never mentioned. We both quietly re followed each other and everything was fine.

  • alchemy

    It’s sobering for me to realize how many friends — and even a brother — have never once spent the time, money, and effort to visit me after I moved from my home state 25 years ago. Sure, I had more reason to visit them more frequently; but barring lack of money and time, is that really a reason to not *once* in 25 years visit me? I’ve suggested it in the most non-pressured way many times. Then there are the friends who *have* spent the time, money, and effort to visit, and that means everything to me.

    Kudos, Monica, for this enlightened piece of self-reflection. That you’ve come to this realization now, this early in your life, will stand you in good stead.

  • mrinalini babbar

    I whole heatedly agree with this soo much. Staying in touch through social media , shouting to the world about what you are upto is not the best idea to vocalize or express yourself. It can wreck and damage you in ways you will not be aware of till realisation dawns upon you. Although I have not grown up with social media on a daily basis, I did however feel it’s constant negatives and downsides while being a user on it . Relying on social media is welcoming isolation which is a direct way into depression.

  • Lil

    It wasn’t until recently that I too realized that friendships don’t just magically work themselves out…

    “Friendships, much like romantic relationships, require effort and nurturing.”
    Thus quote struck a chord because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much time and effort I, myself, put into friendships. I’ve also been reevaluating which friendships I need to take a step back from and which ones I need to invest more in.

    It does hurt to realize how shitty of a friend I’ve been and how some true friends aren’t so true. But it’s better to walk away than waste more time and energy on friendships that aren’t healthy and balanced.

    Also, “80% of friendship is just showing up sometimes.” 🙂

  • I couldn’t agree with this more, we’re so caught up with social media now and forget to go on real life adventures! xx

  • Cassandra Littlewood

    I’ve been thinking about this so much! Not only can we reduce our interactions to likes but I think we can also prolong relationships on social media that were meant to fizzle out. Is it really natural that I still know the details of the lives of random girls I went to school with in middle school? This may sound TERRIBLE but social media has made it so easy to keep in contact with SO many people that otherwise would have naturally faded from my life. It’s a little weird, a little cool, the dynamics of friendships are changing so much.

  • Julia

    staying off of social media for a while really made me reach out to people more because i was genuinely curious as to what my closest friends were up to, and not just passively viewing, liking and commenting on their photos on my timeline! so that was a good way of regaining some human connection, and I love the element of surprise when someone tells you about a cool trip or project they’ve been working on and you get to learn all the details from them directly, not from their online persona!

  • Camila Restrepo

    My birthday was in March and one of my really good college friends legit suprise by calling me! (I say suprise because she had change her phone number and I didn’t know it). I cannot tell you how moved I was by it! We talked for an hour. That same week, I talked to two other friends on the phone and it felt amazing. You don’t need to spend a ton of money to make someone feel good or to catch up with a friend— a simple call suffices. Or use social media but in a different aka actually send a private message asking them how they are (really how they are and not just “how are you? “good and you?” “good, busy with work” THE END).

  • What an important and articulate message, Monica — I appreciate your sharing your own vulnerability to help the rest of us realize that we, too, have probably neglected important relationships. I’m an evangelist for personal handwritten notes, too, but there’s still no substitute for picking up the phone or stopping by for a visit. Genuine connection with others is, I believe one of four essential life connections (the others being with God, with self, and with nature) and we ignore it at our peril.