What Your Virtual Friendships Are Doing To Your Real Ones

We all have thousands of so-called friends, yet we’re still lonely.

When was the last time you cancelled something at the last minute because you just didn’t feel like it? Perhaps it was a Saturday morning coffee date you were too tired to wake up for, or a mid-week dinner that felt all too hard come Wednesday afternoon. Maybe it was a friend’s birthday party where you didn’t know anyone, or a sunrise walk in the rain.

For me, it was a dinner, and I didn’t even cancel. I just didn’t firm it up. My friend and I had made a date two weeks prior, and when the day came… nothing happened. Neither of us sent that now required “Still on for tonight?” message. Neither of us confirmed a time or place. Since then, neither of us have addressed it.

At the time, I was relieved. I wanted to see my friend, of course, but I also really wanted to head home and watch The Handmaid’s Tale with my boyfriend.

But why?

Research tells us friendship is really good for our physical and mental health. In fact, according to an almost 80-year long study conducted by Harvard University researchers, our relationships and the quality of them is the most important factor if we want a long, happy and healthy life. I know this, and yet socialising is so often relegated to the bottom of my to-do list.

No phones. No cancellations. Image: Getty.

I make time to work, clean the house, watch Netflix, buy groceries, exercise daily, cook nourishing food, scroll through Instagram and do the laundry. Sometimes I even meditate. But often when a friend suggests a coffee catchup, I’ll exclaim “I’m just so busy!” before pencilling them in a month down the track and then forgetting.

I don’t think it’s only me who considers every catchup non-committing. I’ve had people say they’re coming to my party and not show up. No text. Not even a Facebook message. And I’ve done the same to others.

But is this just the modern way, a new normal that allows us all more time, more freedom and more flexibility? Or is it something else entirely?

Some friends have told me how much they love cancelled plans, arguing it gives them an unexpected window of time they wouldn’t otherwise have had. Others say they just like leaving their options open, in case something better comes along.

But I think this culture of cancelling leaves us all worse off, as we consider friendships an inconvenience, a chore. What message does it send to those we supposedly love when we opt for the lounge instead of lunch, missing birthdays, girls nights and dinners because we just “don’t feel up to it”?

We all have thousands of so-called friends, yet we’re still lonely. And we don’t even realise, because technology gives us just enough connection to satisfy our basic human needs.

But we don’t get enough support from these tech-friendships for us to thrive. How you feel after a long, deep conversation with a friend is entirely different from how you feel after you comment on someone’s wall. Technology allows us to connect, sure, but it’s a superficial connection. It’s like the McDonalds of friendship -- it might satisfy your hunger, but it doesn’t nourish you. In fact, it can leave you feeling worse.

Addressing the question “Is Spending Time on Social Media Bad for Us?” late last year, Facebook employees David Ginsberg and Moira Burke wrote that it’s not about the technology, but how you use it. They argue that passively spending time on social media can be bad for your mental health, but engaging with your real-life friends online is good for you. Which is great, if people used social media in addition to real-life catchups, rather than instead.

But many of us don’t, especially millennials. I certainly don’t. I’ve spent more time in the past year looking at photos of random kinda-friends graduations than I’ve spent writing to my close friends who live overseas.

There's nothing like real-life contact. Image: Getty.

While it may be fine, good even, to comment on a photo we were tagged in, or tell our friend she’s hilarious in her latest selfie, that’s not usually how it rolls. Often, our comments or posts relinquish us from the obligation to see people in real life, to tell them things face to face. When it’s okay to congratulate people on babies and birthdays with a balloon emoji and “Congrats” comment, we miss out on the great feelings we get when these words are delivered differently. We no longer need to call our cousin to gush about the wedding, or send a card to our high-school bestie on her birthday. We just send them a text or write on their wall, and they hardly even read it.

When we feel sad or disconnected, instead of picking up the phone (because that would be just SO awkward) we turn to our digital relationships, joining Facebook groups of people we don’t know and never will. We find time to give our opinion on a brand of skincare which some stranger is trying out, or get on our soapbox about the latest viral story, but not to respond to a text from Mum asking how our day was.

And we wonder why we’re lonely.

Since I realised what this tech-habit was doing to my friendships, I challenged myself to stop. Now I call my friends, often. I say “Hi” to acquaintances when I see them on the street instead of looking at my phone and pretending I didn’t notice them. And when I make plans, I show up, even if I don’t feel like it.

Because in a world where almost everything is accessible via iPhone, friendships shouldn’t be. And it’s up to us to bring them to life.

Bella Westaway is Content and Engagement Editor @Wildwomenontop and @Coastrek, and formerly Associate Blog Editor @HuffpostAU.