Reclaiming Friendship in the Social Media Age

Author: Brad Merchant
October 23, 2019

Augustine once wrote that there are two things essential to existence in this world: life and friendship. Yet, as Drew Hunter insightfully points out in his book on friendship, “Friendship is, for many of us, one of the most important but least thought about aspects of life.” Most people feel the tension of knowing friendship is valuable while living as though it isn’t.

Social media hasn’t helped. 

Sure, it’s nice to keep up with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, new and old, from all over the world. It’s nice to learn from a wide variety of voices and countless resources that fill our feeds. But social media also distort our view of friendship.

Friendship and Pseudo-Friendship

As we scroll through our feeds, full of pictures and updates from hundreds of people we haven’t talked to in years, we rightly ask, “Are these people really my friends?”

The paradox of social media is that we know many people while not feeling known by anyone. 
Stephen Marche captures this dynamic well: “It’s a lonely business, wandering the labyrinths of our friends’ and pseudo-friends’ projected identities, trying to figure out what part of ourselves we ought to project, who will listen, and what they will hear.” 

A 2018 Cigna study found that people aged 18 to 22 experienced loneliness significantly more than people 72 and older. That is not a coincidence. In a recent University of Pennsylvania study, psychologist Melissa G. Hunt concluded that there is an inevitable link between loneliness and social media use by 18- to 22-year-olds. 

“It is a little ironic that reducing your use of social media actually makes you feel less lonely,” she says. “Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness.” 

Social media promise social connectedness but often deliver social isolation.

Four Ways to Reclaim Friendship

 

Social media’s distortion of genuine friendship and community presents Christians with a great opportunity to reclaim and re-emphasize the priority of friendship. Here are four ways we can redeem the distortion of friendship in a social media age.

1. Prioritize Face-to-Face Friendships

About a year ago I made the decision to prioritize a smaller number of friends I lived in close proximity with instead of spending so much time keeping up with many distant acquaintances online. I scheduled biweekly meetings with these friends. Whenever I wanted to know how one was doing, I called them instead of checking their social feeds. Over time, I found that trading tweets and Facebook updates for real-time conversations strengthened my friendships and filled me with joy.

2. Value Deep Friendships

For the first time in our lives, we can objectively assess popularity. Social media have given us the ability to know exactly how many pseudo-friends we have. This silent contest often reorients our value systems. Many of us would rather have 5,000 followers than five deep friendships—all because we’ve wrongly attached our self-worth to a follower count.

But Christians should tip the scales in the opposite direction, valuing the few deep over the many shallow. We should seek friends who know our greatest joys and deepest sorrows, not just the superficial tidbits of our lives we post on Instagram.

3. Create New Social Media Habits

The FOMO effect is real. Fearful of missing out on social events and updates, we feel enslaved to social media. This constant fear, and the dopamine rush we get with every new notification, cause us to constantly check our feeds for the latest news or viral whatever we might be missing—all the while interrupting time with family, friends, and God. When endless streams of information are available at any moment, they tend to invade every moment. How do we get free? In his excellent book The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch suggests we take planned sabbaticals from our screens: one hour a day, one day a week, one week a year. Choosing to say “no” to social media frees us to recenter on God and enjoy the people he puts in front of us—even if we miss out on a few things online.

4. Rest in Jesus, Our Ever-Faithful Friend

Jesus stands in the face of social media’s claim for authentic friendship, declaring: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The ultimate Friend does not come to us through a screen, but in a body. He wraps himself in flesh and adorns himself with our weakness so that he can say, “No longer do I call you servants . . . I have called you friends.” (John 15:15). Jesus reminds us we are embodied people, meant to live joyful, sacrificial lives for the good of others and the glory of God. 

Our worth is not found in the number of followers we have, but in the fact that Jesus calls us his friend. When we rest in this glorious truth, we are freed from enslavement to social media’s definition of friendship and worth.

Brad Merchant is the pastor of leadership development at College Park Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is the author of Mentoring Like Jesus and blogs regularly. You can follow him on Twitter. This article was found here at gospelcoalition.org.


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