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Ah, social media. How has it made our lives better and easier but also worse and harder at the same time? Sure, we can get news and life updates that much quicker, but there's a whole host of other problems and quirks that arise from being on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, etc.
When it comes to relationships, social media has created a whole new ball game. We're not talking romantic ones here (that deserves its own novel, or book series, library…). We're talking about friendships. It's so easy to stay in contact with friends and even make some new ones through DMs or text messages or "likes," but it can be much harder to have meaningful connections or bonding moments when you're doing it virtually.
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"Social media has certainly shifted the way we communicate and relate to the world around us," says Madeleine DiLeonardo, MEd, LPC, NCC, a licensed professional counselor and founder of Mind Body and Soul by DiLeonardo Wellness. "In some ways, we are able to remain connected to friends who are far away or whom we do not get to see regularly in person, and this is great. However, it's important to note that while sending memes back and forth allows for continued contact, investing in friendships on a deeper level is an important part of maintaining positive relationships. When we 'like' something online, we perceive this as feeling connected to the person. However, human connection requires that we invest more deeply than that."
Dare we say that social media and technology have made us a little bit lazier when it comes to our friendships? I know that I've been guilty of that at times. There have been moments when I've realized I haven't caught up with someone in a long time, and instead of calling them, I decided to just comment on their latest Instagram post or reply to their story. I know, yikes.
To atone for being a not-so-good friend (and maybe help others out there who need some pointers, too), I reached out to a few experts to find out how to navigate friendships virtually and IRL. Here's what they had to say.
Gulp. As a classic millennial, I am very phone-averse. I barely call my own mother. (We text, and I visit her every two weeks—don't worry). But anyway, now that texting and DMs and emails are available to us, calling someone can be so foreign. But a phone call is sometimes better than a virtual message, especially if you're talking to a friend who doesn't live near you.
"While the convenience of sending a message is undeniable and amazing, I still think it's important to pick up the phone and call friends every once in a while," Myka Meier, founder and director of Beaumont Etiquette and the Plaza Hotel Finishing Program and author of Modern Etiquette Made Easy. "For example on a birthday for a close friend, it has so much more emphasis nowadays to show you put the effort into calling them. Of course, a text or message is always nice to receive, but hearing someone's voice really can help people reconnect."
With conflicting schedules or distance, it might be tough to find time to actually see your friends IRL. But it's important to try to get something in the books. "I think scheduling an in-person visit, whether it be over coffee, dinner, or a night out where possible, is a great way to keep a strong connection with any relationship," Meier says. "When meeting someone in person, it's important while speaking to them to put your phone away and focus on the person in front of you. Not only will it help you connect and build rapport, but it will make them feel that during the time you are together, they are the priority, which always feels good as a friend."
And we mean really check in and show interest in what your friend is doing or what's going on with their lives. "To be a better friend this year, take the time to reach out to friends and check in on how they're doing," suggests Elizabeth Hinkle, LMFT, LCMFT, a Talkspace therapist, adolescent peer consultant, and coach. "We easily make assumptions that all is well if we see a happy-looking photo on Instagram, which usually is not the whole story. When you are with friends in person, put your devices away to be fully present."
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Maybe you have a friend who prefers phone calls, or you have another one who only likes texting. Keep those things in mind when you're getting in touch. "As a general rule, it's important to call or talk in person when you have something to say that goes beyond a few texts," Hinkle says. "However, this can depend on the person and what they're comfortable with. Some people enjoy phone calls while others are happy to text back and forth all day long. Knowing your friend and their preferences is important."
We all have that one friend who is terrible at responding to texts but who you know is looking at their phone because they just liked your Instagram post or tweeted something. Or maybe YOU are that friend. It can be frustrating to be on the receiving end of that, but you've got to be a little patient.
"I think it's important to give someone time to answer, and it may require a little bit of patience, as you never know what is going on in their life," Meier says. "I also think everyone has been guilty one time or another of meaning to respond but being sidetracked and forgetting and only realizing later. When that has happened to me and I am waiting for a reply, I will nudge once with a follow-up text a day or so later—but I'd recommend using caution before sending more than one follow-up because at that point, they have definitely seen your message."
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Sometimes we might take our friendships for granted, and think they'll always be there, but friendships require work, too. "Just making the effort can really matter," DiLeonardo says. "I recently had a long-distance friend text me in January and acknowledge how busy we all are but asked if we could find a weekend in April to plan a get-together. I remember thinking that the thought behind that meant so much to me, and it's worth looking ahead and trying to find time to spend quality time together."
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Be there for your friends, whether it's through text, DMs, or in person—especially during challenging or tough times. "I often hear clients worry that they are not sure what to say or how to act if they are trying to be a good friend to someone going through a challenging situation," DiLeonardo explains. "Just showing up and demonstrating support is often enough. You do not need to be perfect or always have the right thing to say. My dad always reminds me, 'If it's done with love, that is what matters.' I try to remind clients that if you are coming from a good place and showing up for your people, that's where the impact lies." And let your friends be their most authentic, human selves around you—even if it's messy. She says that is one of the greatest gifts you can give a friend.
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There might be a point where you realize some of your friendships have changed, or you've grown apart, or the relationship might have turned toxic. While it can be very upsetting, it's also normal. This is where prioritizing and taking stock of your friendships can help. "Take a look at who is contributing to your life in ways that feel supportive and positive," Hinkle says. "Some friendships can be draining when the other person is taking more than they're giving. Think about your priorities for friendships and what a true friend means to you."
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In the same vein as above, you might find that because social media makes it so easy to be "friends" with so many people, it can be exhausting at times to keep up with everything. Take the prioritization from above and take some action on your feeds.
"Because we are connected to so many people online, we are often exposed to the lives of a lot more people," DiLeonardo says. "My suggestion to clients is often to cut out the noise. Go through your social media feed and hide the things or people that don't add value for you to see, and prioritize connecting more with close friends. You can also utilize the features that allow you to create a 'best friends' list and share/interact with the people closest to you. In the age of social media, it's possible to feel close to people because we often witness what is going on with them through their online platforms, but it's important to not confuse this for true and deep connection."
Now that a lot of people are broadcasting their everyday actions through social media, there may come a time when you see all your friends hanging out without you. Or you might feel a general sense of loneliness. "The facts remain that you may not be invited to everything, even if you're an amazing person and friend," Hinkle says. "If this happens to you and it is bothering you longer than a day or two, it may be worth telling your friend, 'I felt hurt when I saw you doing X without me.'"
It might also help to take a step back from technology if you are feeling sad or angry. "Implementing boundaries around this is really important, meaning if you notice that you are experiencing FOMO or are upset about being left out, put your phone down and try to invest more in your own time that evening rather than watching what is going on elsewhere," DiLeonardo suggests.
And if you are the person who's (inadvertently?) excluding someone, just being aware of your actions can go a long way. You don't need to post everything that's happening. "To be aware of not doing this to someone else, follow the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated," Hinkle says. "You and your friend group could consider and discuss not posting pictures on social media."
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"Just because we are behind screens, it doesn't mean that you should treat people any differently than if you were to be in front of them," Meier says. "This really is referring to people often saying things that they would never say in person. Online bullying is a real epidemic, and I think we all must treat one another with kindness, respect, and consideration always. One way to nurture and grow a friendship is to show support to anyone you have a friendship with, especially online. Liking their photos, spreading positive thoughts to people in comments, and uplifting and supporting your online friends is crucial."