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The Digital BFF: How Social Media Is Changing Friendships

Recently, a story about basketball star Charles Barkley’s unlikely friendship with a cat litter scientist in Iowa went viral. Barkley met the late Lin Wang in the bar of a Sacramento hotel where he was giving a speech. The two struck up a conversation that lasted for hours. Then, they had dinner together and talked for hours more. Over the years, the friendship deepened as Barkley and Lin spent more time together. When Barkley’s mother died, Lin attended the funeral. And when Lin died, Barkley was on hand to give a eulogy. 

“I’m so blessed to have known him,” Barkley said at Lin’s funeral.

It’s certainly surprising that a famous basketball star would befriend someone so far out of the limelight like Lin. That’s one of the reasons why their odd-duck union captivated millions. But more than that, Barkley and Lin’s story was about friendship – real, authentic, heartfelt friendship – built on time spent in conversation and sharing experiences together

In the age of social media, full of well connected, but not necessarily intimate virtual friendships, Barkley and Lin’s relationship seems special if not rare.

digital bff | emindful

Is Social Media Ruining Our Friendships?

It’s hard to know if social media is ruining our “real” friendships. We do know that loneliness has become an epidemic in the digital age. We also know that social media affects our relationships and it’s not always for the better, resulting in FOMO , a colloquial acronym meaning “Fear of Missing Out.”.

A UCLA study, for example, showed that children’s social skills might be declining as they spend more time on devices and less time interacting with others face-to-face. The study showed that these effects apparently subside once kids lay off their devices for five days or more.

But another review of 72 studies by University of Michigan researchers found that empathy among college students has decreased 40% over the past 30 years, with the most dramatic changes occurring in the past decade when cell phones became omnipresent. Cell phones also have become an integral part of our in person get-togethers. Nearly 90% of cell phone owners say they use their devices during social gatherings, according to the Pew Research Center.

Interestingly, most of us say that using cell phones when we’re together hurts the quality of our relationships. As anyone who has ever had a friend scroll through their Facebook feed or send a text during dinner can attest.  

“Our little devices are so psychologically powerful that they don’t just change what we do, they change who we are,” says Sherry Turkle, a sociologist and MIT professor, in her TED talk:  “Alone, but Connected.”

Turkle has spent 30 years studying how technology is transforming our relationships. More recently, she’s noted the worrisome trend of how technology is making us forget what’s important in life – namely intimate conversations and time spent together.

“Face-to-face conversation is one of the most humanizing and human things we do,” Turkle has said.

The more time we spend texting, emailing or Instagramming the less time we have to converse in person with friends. But one of the more subtle effects of social media might be that it distorts our expectations of how long it takes for intimate friendships to evolve. Social media instantly connects us to others, but lasting, reliable friendships take time to create.

How Long Does it Take to Build a Close Friendship?

I’m reminded of a passage from the children’s book, “The Little Prince,” where the prince tells the fox that he is looking for friends. The fox responds that to be a friend the prince will first have to tame him and create “ties” with him. Doing so is an act that’s often neglected and one that takes time says the fox.

This is true for human relationships as well. Close friendships, like a sapling, need nurturing.

If you need convincing, consider intriguing research published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships last year that shows you need to spend 50 hours with someone to create a casual friendship; 90 hours with someone to become “real” friends and 200 hours to become close friends.

Metrics like that will likely appeal to digital natives. But it might be more meaningful just to be more mindful of how much time you spend on social media connecting with digital BFFs versus how much time you spend doing things face-to-face with others. Apparently, we don’t do enough of this anyway, spending just 41 minutes a day socializing, according the Jeffrey Hall, the University of Kansas professor behind the how long it takes to be friends research.

Either way, there’s always room for experimentation. Try spending more time in the real world, doing real things with real friends and notice how you feel. However you feel in the moment, it’s likely that you won’t regret devoting time cultivating friendships that have intimacy and staying power.

A now famous study from Harvard that’s tracked the lives of more than 200 men over the past 80 years concluded that one of the most important keys to longevity and happiness is loving relationships.

After all, a digital BFF is a poor substitute for a face-to-face friend when you need a shoulder to cry on or even a hug.

About the Author

Kelly Barron. M.A., is a certified mindfulness facilitator, at UCLA and writer. She teaches mindfulness for UCLA’s Mindfulness Research Center as well as for corporations, schools and private groups. Kelly has worked as a mindfulness teacher with eM Life since 2016. She came to learn the value of mindfulness as a deadline-driven journalist. Now, she’s passionate about sharing mindfulness with others to help them live with more ease, clarity and joy. You can learn more about Kelly and read her blog at www.kellybarron.com.