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How Facebook is good and bad for friendship
Social media has been linked to a plethora of relationship stressors over the years, but it's also changing the definition of friendship. - photo by Chandra Johnson
When California writer Sharael Kolberg and her family decided to cut back on social media and cellphone use, she expected there to be some challenges keeping up with family and friends.

What she didnt expect was to lose friends over it, but thats what happened when Kolberg signed off of Facebook in 2009 as part of her yearlong experiment (which is now a book) of relying less on the Internet and smart devices, including TV, laptops and mobile phones.

People were irritated when they cant access you immediately. We live in a world so used to being able to reach someone instantly and its that instant gratification and the kind of communication were used to, Kolberg said. So when you choose not to have that, people are almost offended by it.

Social media is, unsurprisingly, a huge part of how people, especially teens, connect with friends. A recent study from Pew Research Center found that 89 percent of teens reported using at least one social media site, while 71 percent use two or more sites. Teens have an average of 145 Facebook friends, 150 Instagram followers and 95 Twitter followers. One-third of teens surveyed said they didnt know how many Facebook friends they had.

While friendship and networking are touted as the hallmarks of sites like Facebook, some studies have found that social media use hurts and even ends friendships, often because online spats can translate to friendship deal-breakers in real life.

Aside from occasionally harming friendships, social media may also blur the lines between friend and fan, essentially changing how children and teens define friendship.

Social media is taking relationships and making them broad instead of deep. In these online environments, friendship involves a comma as in, there are thousands of them, so the definition gets murky, said Texas-based author and parenting blogger Kay Wyma. But social media isnt the problem as much as our relationship with social media.

Weak ties

Child psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore says that while social media is designed to keep people connected, its missing something essential to lasting friendships: Intimacy.

Friending people and collecting friends like baseball cards is not the same as being friends, Kennedy-Moore said. Theres value in casual friendships, but those deep friendships are treasures. We have to model good friendship for our kids.

Author and research scientist Yalda Uhls says that while many teens social media following may correspond with real-life friends and acquaintances, social media can promote what she calls weak ties.

Theres a whole bunch of people who are counted as friends that arent really friends, Uhls said. In previous generations, children were not gathering that kind of weak-tie relationship a networking relationship. Children are getting those at a young age now.

Wyma says people struggle to have close connections via social media for many reasons, but a major hurdle is that social media is inherently artificial because most people present their best selves in their status updates and photos.

Whats presented on social media is not often reality, Wyma said. If Im not representing my true self on social media, that deters me from having a relationship because Im not who I say I am.

The lack of authenticity can be unconsciously unsettling for users, Kennedy-Moore says, because it naturally leads to comparison and envy.

Theres this fear of missing out when we look at social media that raises self-doubt because here I am sitting here with my ordinary life, while everyone else is posting pictures from amazing vacations, for example, Kennedy-Moore said. That can be isolating.

The isolation social media can bring is especially hard on tweens and teens because adolescence is the time when humans naturally compare and contrast themselves with others to form a sense of self. Its typically a tumultuous time in life for most people on its own, but Wyma says social media can make the process even more difficult when kids equate likes, comments and online friends with self-worth.

Kids just live in social media. They seek likes and shares as defining who they are and their belonging is tied to that, Wyma said. Theyre essentially putting their sense of self-worth into the hands of others and its never enough. If I have 10 likes, why dont I have 15?

Bigger circle

While social media use can complicate the boundaries of friendship, it can also strengthen it, Kennedy-Moore said.

Face to face communication has an immediacy that texting or posting just doesnt, Kennedy-Moore said. On the other hand, social media allows kids to carry friends in their back pockets. So it can supplement that connection, but it cant replace it.

Uhls argues that social media helps kids maintain friendships that a generation ago would likely have faded away even across oceans.

More kids report that they have a broad network of friends a plane ride away. When I was in the fourth grade, I had a friend move away and I dont even remember his name, Uhls said. Kids are now able to keep those connections and theyre considered friendships even though those arent intimate friendships.

For kids who are shy, sensitive or struggling with problems they dont want to verbalize, Uhls says social media can be a salve if its used responsibly.

For some kids who are maybe introverts, the screen can help them out of their shell a little, Uhls said. But of course, you dont want them to use it to avoid communicating in real life, so its important for the whole family to have time offline to interact.

Kennedy-Moore says its also important for parents to remember that teens are smart enough to know which friendships matter and which dont.

I think most kids know the difference between a real friendship and a Facebook friendship, Kennedy-Moore said. But the online space can be very validating for teens.

Wyma says that for parents worried about a childs social media connections, its important to model real-life connection.

Its so important to strive for a real relationship offline, and parents can model that for their kids, Wyma said. The depth of friendship can only go so far on social media.
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