‘Wishing to be friends is quick work,

But friendship is a slow-ripening fruit.’ – Aristotle

We’d all like more friends, but does social media create the sort of online friendship that can develop into an in-person friendship?

Or is social media just a glorified gossip forum about people we know, sort-of know, don’t know at all or would like to get to know but can’t?

Or, do we like to acknowledge its existence but keep it at arms length because we instinctively know that without it, we’d feel much lonelier? 

Does acknowledging what other people are saying and doing through social media alleviate social isolation? Or does it feign friendship by forcing us to engage with it?

Who Uses Social Media?

It’s not just the domain of young people anymore, social media can help build online connections that would otherwise be impossible. So social networking can save time by allowing us to connect with people who are faraway and who we are unlikely to meet in our everyday lives. Social networking services such as Facebook, Instagram and Linked-In help to provide valuable information about ‘what’s out there’ and ‘who’s out there.’ 

But how did social media come to be the domain of the young in the first place? Why do we live in such an ageist society when older people are living longer? Why does there seem to be a role reversal where older people are learning from younger people whereas it used to be the other way around – when older people used to be regarded by the young as wise? Why have the young embraced technology in a way that their parents haven’t? 

It world seem that the world has divided into two, maybe three types of people:

A/ Pre-internet Users. (People who have never grasped the internet and perhaps never will and are cautious of it). This group tend to be older.

B/ Internet Users. (People who have been brought up with the internet and accept it). This group tends to be younger.

C/ Perhaps there’s a 3rd category of Users? People who know both – the internet and life without it. This group tend to be smarter.

Is social media impacting our lives similarly to how group A/ coped with the advent of television when it was in its infancy? Television was deemed bad if you watched too much of it, but now everyone is binging Netflix. So if it’s possible for television to change to suit viewer appetites.  Perhaps it’s also possible for social media to change to suit User appetites. Then perhaps over time like television, social media will mould to our requirements whereas presently it feels more like we’re being changed to suit its requirements. 

Or perhaps it simply comes down to our usage? Too much screen time can develop couch potato habits. But if we’re mindful of how we use our screen time i.e. social media, then it may just impact our lives in a positive way and become a useful leisure time activity just like television.

Some Social Media Positives

1/ Social media can connect people in a way that would otherwise be impossible as it can overcome barriers of distance and time. It allows people to connect and re-connect thereby expanding interactions and networks.

2/ You can use social media to spread positive messages about your organisation or business.

3/ You can use social media to tell human stories by using video, photos and a narrative. 

4/ Social Media is good for making friends and connecting with family.

5/ Managed social media programs can help young adults achieve better outcomes at school.

Seen The Social Dilemma? It features Facebook execs questioning their faith in Facebook. According to this documentary, Facebook has developed into a needy digital conundrum. It posed some interesting questions around social media where there seems to be more negatives than positives associated with its usage.

One of the debates around Facebook in The Social Dilemma stemmed from how Facebook drew people in by constantly engaging with them. You can’t just put FB away for another day. It’s like a baby that never stops crying – it demands your attention. And by demanding your attention it creates an addiction of sorts.

Perhaps it draws you in, in the same way that a good drama with good actors does. We all know that actors are playing a part but sometimes as we know them only as their character, we feel that we know them, when in actual fact we don’t. If only they weren’t so convincing! 

A profile photo (if that’s all you have to go on) can be quite alluring. But the reality is you’ve become friends with a profile photo and some text. If you put it like that then it certainly loses its gloss. So how is it that human beings can lull themselves into a false sense of reality and kid themselves that something is real when it’s not?

Is it suspended disbelief? Whatever it is, it seems like we want to believe that what’s not in fact real – IS. And just because we believe in something it doesn’t make it true. So who defines what’s true and what isn’t? That is the question.

It would seem that the in order to believe something is true, a statement must come from a higher authority and then it is more likely to be deemed as true, that is until it’s found out not to be. And in order to not question truth, we must fear the outcome of truth.

For instance, if Facebook says staying connected to your online community is a good thing, then we tend to do it, because the fear of finding out that it’s not a good thing risks being rejected by the community and ending up alone.

Social Media Negatives

1/  Cyber-bullying by individuals known and unknown to us. Because the use of technology by individuals goes largely unchecked, an unflattering image or hurtful message sent by one  individual about another individual without their approval can be shared many times across the internet. This is known as cyberbullying.

2/  FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) is a social anxiety associated with wanting to know what others are doing. 

3/  Social media can contribute to unrealistic expectations and friendships. Sometimes just because you’ve made an online connection with someone and regard them as a friend, it doesn’t mean that they also want to be friends back with you. Generally speaking, it takes time to develop a friendship and unrealistic expectations or hopes of how a friend should treat you can kill the relationship from developing any further.

4/  Social media can contribute to a negative body image, low-esteem and lack of confidence.

Discovering what you deem as a higher authority like your friends on Facebook and that they may be critical of someone’s body image may impact your thoughts about your own body image.

5/  Social media never sleeps (and doesn’t allow us to) so therefore it can contribute to an unhealthy sleep pattern. Waiting for that message, reply or comment or how the comments we may have sent can contribute to a broken sleep pattern where checking our phones becomes habitual.

6/ It can result in comparative behaviour which can result in low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence. Constantly comparing yourself to impossible images, ideals or even good deeds can result in feelings of inadequacy. 

7/ It can make individuals seek out social rewards for egotistical reasons rather than genuine acts of kindness and consideration. Being seen to be ‘doing the right thing’ by performing a good deed so you look good on your facebook page (eg posting a selfie with the person you are helping) could possibly backfire and be seen by people as fake intent rather than doing good. 

8/ It can make us place our faith in total strangers that may do us harm. This is an obvious one. People are very capable of telling lies on social media as they are never held accountable. They manipulate you into trusting them and it may result in you doing something that you may not have wanted to. 

9/ Social media behaviour can be tracked and analysed to influence behaviour. As social media in general is free for users, this provides an unregulated network where corporations have uncontrolled and free reign over how your data may be used.  

10/ Social media usage can be tracked to sell advertising back to individuals. This is how social media organisations make money. Your behaviour online indicates what you are interested in and in this way, social media organisations can see where you spend your money and then place ads around where you go online. 

11/ It can strip away individual freedoms and privacy by going unchecked and unanswerable to a higher authority. 

All of the points above can impact us negatively if we use social media, so then why do we use it?

It would seem that a combination of a feeling of increased self-isolation without it and convenience may provide some answers. For almost the same reasons that social media can negatively impact our lives it can also positively impact our lives, but it seems there is a fine line between social media having a positive impact and a negative impact.

Does social media make us feel less lonely?

It is a basic human need to feel inclusive and welcome – to be accepted. With all of us living increasingly isolated lives especially in 2020, our online usage has increased, so how does it make us feel less lonely? 

Like having the radio or television playing in the background, social media plays a part in making us feel less isolated by connecting us with other humans that we may not even know.

It seems to be a human phenomenon that the thought of other people like us existing in the world gives us hope and by connecting with others we feel less alone.

Feeling included in a dialogue or community is how we feel less isolated and valued as humans. Although much of the time these interactions may be with people we haven’t met, they can still give us hope – hope that there are people out there just like us and that we are not alone. 

Does social media make us feel more lonely?

It would seem that there is a fine line between social media impacting our lives in a good way (making us feel inclusive and not alone when its at its best) and making us feel feel more lonely and less worthy.

Over usage (the very thing that Facebook and other social networking services encourage us to do more of by altering algorithms) can in fact make us (by doing more of it) less happy and ultimately more lonely. 

But how does this come about?

There may come a point where even online friendships have to go somewhere – grow and develop in order to feel that they are of any value. But where do they go?

If you know someone previous to knowing them online then that is a slightly different scenario, but if you know someone from only knowing them online, then it would seem inevitable that one day you should meet or carry on that relationship into the off-line or real world in order to continue and grow the relationship.

If this is not possible, or someone does not feel any need to develop the relationship further then this could lead to an increased sense of isolation as it could be interpreted as rejection.

Certainly the ability to ‘ghost’ people that previously you remained in contact with can lead to feeling hurt and disappointed.

The cruel thing about ghosting is that it leaves no room for discussion and provides no explanation as to what may have gone wrong. It throws doubt into the mind of the ghosted about what they may have done in order to be left ‘hung out to dry’.

One may begin to doubts one’s actions, but if you think you’ve done nothing wrong or have done nothing to warrant being ghosted, then it may damage your confidence and self-esteem. 

Is a ‘real need’ necessary in order to meet your online friends in the offline world?

So you’ve lost your cat or phone or wallet and now you must meet the person who has found them? That’s a real need – something you can’t avoid like an essential thing you require in order to live your life. Something where you are sort of forced to take an action. You’d like that job. So yes, you will have to attend the interview. 

But what if there’s no real need to meet someone other than to become friends? Is that a real need? Probably not. A particular friend isn’t necessary in order to keep living your life. This makes it much more difficult to step onto The Bridge of friendship to make the effort to go and meet with that particular person.

This may seem to be the main difficulty with online friendships is that at some point they need to develop into ‘real’ friendships in order to continue to grow and the only way to do this is to ‘meet the person.’ 

But in taking these steps at the risk of a meeting being awkward or being ghosted or rejected will at the very least signal to you whether that friendship was really ever a possibility in the first place. As they say:

‘The journey is just as important as the destination.’

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