Friendships in the digital age

Well connected, but still lonely? Maintaining close relationships actually seems to be easier these days through social media. How friendships have changed with new technologies

Thousands of followers on Instagram or Twitter, hundreds of friends on Facebook - many, especially younger, people are friends with numerous people on social networks. “But friendship is not always friendship,” says psychologist Anna Schneider from the Fresenius University of Applied Sciences in Cologne. Because having online friends is only a requirement of the network. According to her, the digital age has not fundamentally changed real friendships - rather, new opportunities have emerged.

In order to maintain intensive relationships, the social networks could help, emphasizes Anna Schneider, who has researched friendships in the digital age. “Instagram and Co. can prevent friendships from becoming acquaintances.” Maintaining contacts even over long distances was easier than ever - and a “like” or “online heart” could be important symbols of affection, she says in the run-up to the International Friendship Day on July 30th.

Online friendships are different from offline friends

However, the symbols alone were not enough. Such “social snacks” suggested being part of a community. In truth, they left a bland aftertaste. "At the latest when the relationship is stressed - for example when moving - you usually cannot count on these people," says the psychologist. The title “friend” is completely different online than in real life. This is also revealed by a study by British researcher Robin Dunbar from Oxford University in 2016. Result: Facebook users only see around four of their online friends as close, trusted caregivers.

This is no surprise for Schneider. “Because true friendships thrive on encounters, on closeness. “And how can you build such a bond with often several hundred online friends?” Asks the researcher. Real hugs only showed how the other person was doing physically and mentally. “So Skype calls can never be a permanent replacement for face-to-face meetings,” she explains.

Heartfelt friend or average friend?

The Berlin psychologist Wolfgang Krüger defines friendship as an “intimate and personal relationship from the heart”. Usually everyone has around three of these close "heart friends" and twelve other average friends. “We can't do more. After all, you have to build and maintain friendships. It's a life's work, ”says the author.

According to Krüger, close relationships last for over 30 years and are more durable than many a love affair. “Friendships are less prone to conflict because there is simply a bit more distance than in a partnership.” 50 percent of the other, less close, friendships failed within seven years. "We are there like a through station," says the psychologist.

Paradox: A lot of social media, but socially isolated

Above all, heavy internet consumption, especially social media, is associated with less real friendships. This is shown by a study by medical researcher Brian Primack from the University of Pittsburgh in 2017. People who spend more than two hours a day on Instagram and Co. are about twice as likely to be socially isolated as they are People who spend less than half an hour there.

“Of course, if you tend to be addicted to the Internet, it is always at the expense of active friendships. But that is a minor exception, ”commented Wolfgang Krüger on the investigation. Being well connected doesn't mean you feel lonely in real life. Especially in the younger generation up to 35 years of age, there is a healthy level of skepticism. "They are well aware that online friends are not to be equated with real friends."

How we live friendship today

But digitization or not: “Real friendships need real encounters,” summarizes the expert Schneider. Basically, the nature of friendship has not changed as a result of digitization: "Friendships are only lived differently today".

New contacts are kept at a safe distance through the targeted use of certain communication channels, while familiar contacts are granted full digital access. Video telephony is a popular tool within family or close friends. "But if the landlord sends a video message, that would be rather disturbing," says Schneider. Because also online: friendship is not always friendship.