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Guest Post: Is social media bad for friendship?


By Rebecca Roache

Royal Holloway

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I run a practical ethics course at Royal Holloway for second- and third-year undergraduates, and today our topic was friendship and social media. More specifically, we considered whether the increasing tendency for our friendships to be mediated and maintained through the use of websites like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr might be changing the nature of our friendships, and whether this is a good or a bad thing.

The small but growing philosophical literature on this topic is—unsurprisingly—pretty recent. And from what I could tell from my inexhaustive survey of it, it tends to be premised on the view that social media is a threat to the institution of friendship, in that those writers who think it is not a threat (or that it is less of a threat than might first be thought) take themselves to have to argue against this premise. It is perhaps unsurprising that the debate should take this form; after all, we are used to the pervasive ideas that being glued to our smartphones is damaging to our relationships, that taking a social media detox by turning off our wifi connection for the weekend is a wholesome thing to do, and that face-to-face interactions are somehow healthier than online interactions. That we frequently encounter these ideas through memes shared on social media might be thought to prove the point.

As I was preparing for my class on this topic, it occurred to me that these discussions are probably biased in the following way. It is likely (though I’m too lazy to do the research required to find out for sure) that the sort of people who publish academic and journalistic articles about the effect of social media on our friendships are—given their career stage—at least in their late twenties or older. This means that, at the stage of their lives when they began to form friendships as young adults, social media was much less prevalent than it is today. Their ideas about the sort of thing that friendship is, then, were formed without the backdrop of ubiquitous social media. To such people, social media was a late arrival at the friendship party; it is not something that was integral to their formative discovery and exploration of what it is to have friendships as an adult. Perhaps this helps explain why these people often implicitly assume that social media is a threat to friendship.

By contrast, my undergraduate students are in their late teens and very early twenties. They entered adolescence at a time when everyone in the world was already on Facebook (or so it often seems). These students—and, indeed, anyone their age or younger—will have a different perspective on the issue of how social media affects friendship compared to the (older) journalists and academics who publish articles about this topic. Indeed, it strikes me that my students and their peers cannot even entertain the idea of social media being a threat to friendship in the way that people of my age can. To them, ubiquitous social media is not something that came along for them to explore after they had developed firm ideas about the sort of thing that friendship between adults is. It was always there. Even for those who chose not to use it, the role it plays in the culture of their peers would have been hard to ignore.

So perhaps, I thought, the belief—publicised by older people—that, on balance, social media is bad for friendship is an instance of status quo bias. Status quo bias is a preference for the way things are. With this bias in mind, it should not be surprising if people who first discovered friendship in the absence of ubiquitous social media turn out to be disposed to focus on the negative effects of social media on friendship, and to downplay its positive effects.

How can we work out whether social media really is bad for friendship, or whether the tendency to see it this way is a result of status quo bias? As an exercise to explore this, consider the following scenario, which reverses the status quo. Imagine that social media has always been around, and that it has always been about as ubiquitous as it is now. There was never friendship without Facebook. Even while Aristotle was writing the Ethics—which contains what remains the most influential philosophical treatment of friendship—he was pausing to share cat memes on his Facebook page and getting #eudaimonia trending on Twitter. Now imagine that, in that world, we face the prospect of losing social media forever. Just as people who have grown up without ubiquitous social media fear that its appearance is bad for friendship, it is likely that—in this imaginary scenario—people who have always had ubiquitous social media would fear that its disappearance would be bad for friendship. Why might the latter worry arise?

I put this question to (who else?) my Facebook friends. And then I put it to my students. Here are some of the concerns we thought of:

  • The loss of social media would mean that we are able to maintain relationships with fewer people. Geographical proximity would become a more important factor in determining who we can have friendships with, especially close friendships.
  • We would have less contact with our friends, know less of their news. Contact would require more effort (going to see people, phoning them, writing a letter or email), and it would be far more difficult to share news with friends en masse.
  • Many valuable aspects of friendship which, thanks to social media, are not dependent on having one-to-one interactions (sharing news, photos, etc.) would become so dependent.
  • Solitary activities (sitting on a train, spending the evening alone at home) would become more lonely and isolating because it would be more difficult to interact with friends remotely.
  • It would force people into a far more extrovert model of friendship than is required by social media: one-to-one interaction would play a greater role. Not everybody enjoys this form of interaction to the same degree.
  • It would reduce freedom: people would no longer have a choice between using and not using social media.
  • Losing social media would make contact with friends more difficult for certain groups of people, some of whom are especially in need of such contact, including:
    • People living in remote/rural areas or far away from their friends.
    • People who are ill, disabled, or hospitalised.
    • People who find one-to-one interaction with (unfamiliar) people difficult because of shyness, autism, etc.
    • People without their own transport, or without reliable public transport.
    • People who can’t afford (or who don’t enjoy) the sort of activities that tend to go hand-in-hand with ‘offline’ friendship, e.g. drinks in the pub, hosting dinner parties, travelling around to visit people.
  • Keeping a journal of one’s life, which sites like Facebook and Tumblr enable as a social, cooperative enterprise that can be shared among an online community, would become a solitary activity.

This list is not intended to represent a balanced evaluation of the effect that the sudden loss of ubiquitous social media would have on the friendships of people who had come to depend on it. For one thing, it contains a lot of over-simplification: we ignored the buffering effect that other communication technologies (phones, email, letter-writing) would have on the sudden loss of social media, and we also ignored the fact that not everybody uses social media in the same ways. We also ignored all the positive things that might follow from loss of social media.* And it’s not even obvious that every change mentioned on this list is a change for the worse, although it’s clear why people inclined to worry about such things would think of them that way (the same can be said about the view that social media is bad for friendship).

But the purpose here is not to provide a balanced evaluation of losing social media; instead, it is to demonstrate that people whose friendships evolved alongside ubiquitous social media could be expected to worry as much about losing it as people whose friendships evolved without social media worry about its increasing role in our lives. This should alert us to the likelihood that our worries about the negative effects of social media on our relationships are influenced by status quo bias. It will be interesting to see how the next wave of academics and journalists, whose friendships have grown up around and within social media, will view this issue.


* Yeah, okay, by ‘we’ I mean ‘I’. My students didn’t ignore any of these things.

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6 Comment on this post

  1. Did it happen to cross your mind (yours and your students) that the claim that social media is bad for friendship does not target social media per se but the progressive replacement of “real life”, acquaintance-based friendhsips by purely virtually-based friendships?

  2. One commenter voiced the concern that social media might be replacing real friendships. While this might be the case, for someone who is geographically mobile (like me) it is hard to make new real-world friends – especially if one is in one’s mid-30s.
    A good friend who is not on FB (we need to actually schedule phone conversations to keep up our friendship, given that he lives far away) has lived in the same area since he was a child. He has lots of close friends (several from childhood) with whom he attends theatre productions and music, they come over and he goes over to have dinner.
    Recently, when I told him how isolated I felt in Amsterdam (especially after moving there from Oxford, a place where I did manage to make some friends), he said, “non-social media friendships are like real estate, location, location, location. It would be impossible for me to maintain these friendships if I had to move.”

  3. Okay this is slightly off topic but when I read ‘Solitary activities (sitting on a train, spending the evening alone at home) would become more lonely and isolating because it would be more difficult to interact with friends remotely,’ I could not help thinking it extraordinary. Sitting and thinking for a while, perhaps reading a book, seem to be out of the question…

  4. I believe that Social media is a god way to connect with each other but depending on it only is definitely ruining the friendships. Because we are so much into these stuff that even when we are together we may not leave our cellphones to talk. Everybody is just focused on taking pictures for their accounts and posting selfies. While what they should be doing is enjoying together and having fun. The true charm of friendship is somewhere lost due to social media

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