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Is social media killing your IRL friendships?

We consume so much information online that there is little curiosity when we meet friends

Social media is changing the landscape of friendships.
Social media is changing the landscape of friendships. (iStockphoto)

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A 39-year-old woman tells me: “I have never liked social media really. While it works well to stay in touch with friends and family who stay abroad and to even showcase one’s work, what I dislike is how it eats into my friendships. I feel like it has changed the way we interact and has taken away the beauty of meeting people in person. In the last few years some of my close friendships have been reduced to just ‘social media friends’ who barely call or stay in touch. It hurts and I don’t know if I am the only one experiencing this”

As a therapist, I have wondered how social media has been changing the landscape of friendships. I do find compelling evidence in my practice now that it’s slowly changing the nature and intimacy of friendships. People aged 15-45 are the ones who seem to be most impacted. Many folks who are in their late 40s and older often report being less active on social media and feel that they meet friends as they used to, and must get on a call or meet, to get updates.

During the pandemic, social media became a way for people to stay in touch, find community and even reconnect with friends. However, now young people/teenagers who are not active on social media or don’t have social media yet talk about how they feel sidelined or excluded in conversations in school or friends’ groups since a lot of the conversations focus on social media content and memes shared.

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At the same time, I hear adults talk about how their close friends do like their posts and view their stories, yet they feel that if this is not combined with check-ins or staying in touch in terms of meeting in person or texting/calling, cracks begin to appear in the relationships.

Social media complicates things. Sometimes people feel annoyed with friends oversharing or even end up arguing about opinions/views that are shared online and endorsed. In addition, an element of jealousy or envy creeps in when friends consume pictures passively and make interpretations about each other’s lives. In therapy, clients often mention that finding out via social media about a party or event that they were not invited to, and their common friends were, can be a trigger.

My understanding is that because we consume so much information online about our friends, acquaintances and even people we have never met, there is a huge reduction in curiosity and openness to engage with close friends and discover what’s happening. We also need to be mindful that constant consumption of information about people we aren’t close to, and the world at large, leaves us feeling exhausted and socially fatigued. We are overwhelmed, for we are constantly getting updates about our friends through social media platforms, yet we don’t really know how they are feeling and what their inner struggles are. This makes me feel extremely sad.

I recognise that we are so hyperconnected, and, at the same time, so disconnected at the most humane level. A reflection of our times and a reminder that we are over-engaging online and forgetting that developing close friendships takes time, patience and repeated meetings.

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We all may recognise this but if we don’t choose to invest in friendships and work towards deepening them or making time for them beyond our comments or likes on social media, then we need to remember that they will slowly fade away and move into a zone of acquaintances, or people we once knew.

Maybe what lies at the heart of all this is the need to ask ourselves if we can make a choice to show up, whether over a call/text, to check in with friends, initiate plans to catch up and see them through, and, most importantly, engage at a deeper level and offer ourselves and our friends the gift of attentive presence so rare these days.

Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health With Sonali.

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