The New Culture of Friendship in the Digital Age

Posted by Sam Moser on 11/1/18 1:44 PM

I remember the day I received a cell phone; I had turned 16 and 3 months and received my driver’s license. The cell phone was not mine alone, however; my younger sister and I shared it. When I drove places, it was turned off. I was only to turn it on if there was some sort of emergency. If my sister went somewhere to meet up with friends, she took the cell phone with her and followed the same protocol; it stayed off in her purse unless an emergency arose.

When my sister started high school, she received her own cell phone. At that point, texting became a “thing.” However, every text message—sent and received—incurred a cost. That cost came out of my bank account, so I had to be very judicious regarding texts.          

Does this sound like cell phone use today? Not at all. If we were in high school now, my sister would be mortified if we shared a phone number; the majority of mobile device users do not have to worry about counting text messages; cell phones are rarely turned off.

With the advent of the web-connected, financially-in-reach smartphones, access to cheap data, and rapid communication, the paradigm of social communication and friendship has pivoted significantly for our children. As educators and caregivers, we must pivot as well in order to ensure that we are supporting their social and emotional needs.         

Did I get enough “likes?”

Dopamine is the “feel-good juice” in our brains. When positive things occur in our lives, our dopamine levels increase, and our mood improves. Before the advent of smartphones and social media, our socially-induced dopamine “hits” came from interactions with friends or loved ones that occurred in person or over the phone. However, with the constant influx of notifications, texts, and Snapchats through our constantly-connected devices, we now have access to an unlimited dopamine-inducing supply chain. Face-to-face interactions have been replaced by friends supporting friends asynchronously—liking, commenting, or responding in a group chat within a certain amount of time.

We post a picture of that incredible meal we made, our children post a picture of their time spent with friends, we share a video of that surprise birthday party—and then we wait, constantly refreshing our newsfeed to track the likes, comments, and other responses that we receive. When we receive a notification that our friends have liked or commented on our post, we feel excited—here comes the dopamine! But then, we refresh the page again. We reopen the text application, looking for those three dots in the speech bubble. We wait, we are notified, dopamine is released, and the cycle continues.


This cycle is one of addiction, as we constantly receive the positive feedback from people liking, commenting and responding. In a 2016 study entitled “The Power of the Like in Adolescence: Effects of Peer Influence on Neural and Behavioral Responses to Social Media,” researchers found that adolescents “were more likely to like photos depicted with many likes than photos with few likes...Viewing photos with many (compared with few) likes was associated with greater activities in neural regions implicated in reward processing, social cognition, imitation, and attention.” But what if they do not receive “enough” positive feedback—or any at all? The dopamine-fueled feedback loop is broken for the native user of social media if they have not achieved a certain threshold of positive response.

Our children are natives to this world. They are reinforced and feel fulfilled by their connections positively responding to their posts. Young social media users curate their accounts, deleting posts of they do not receive enough “attention.” The 2016 Washington Post article, "13, right now," highlights the experiences of a 13-year-old digital native navigating her social world. The case study demonstrates the unspoken rules that exist—for instance, the importance of birthday posts: “‘Happy birthday posts are a pretty big deal,’ she says. ‘It really shows who cares enough to put you on their page.’” These posts and others engender self esteem: “‘It...promotes you as a good person. If someone says, ‘tbh you’re nice and pretty,’ that kind of...validates you in the comments. Then people can look at it and say ‘Oh, she’s nice and pretty.’” Validation, social status, the construction of self esteem—they all hang in the balance of the comment.

As Inga Jörb and Joyesha Shrestha highlight in their impressive TEDx Talk, some components of digital connection can elicit positive outcomes. One of their points is that, when used appropriately, social media enables friends separated geographically to remain in touch. 

When it comes to cyberbullying, Jörb and Shrestha advocate for strong child-parent relationships. If parents keep the lines of communication open about social media goings-on and monitor their children’s activities, there are ample opportunities to thwart cyberbullying. 

Is this real life?

Before camera phones and digital cameras, film was taken to a store and photos were returned days or weeks after they were taken. There was no way to know that a photo should be retaken or touched up in the moment. Now, however, the first photo taken is rarely the one used. Photos can be taken, retaken, cropped, edited, re-angled, and touched up with a few swipes and taps. Within seconds or minutes, the “perfect” post is created.

The phenomenon of the staged-candid post has created a significant reality distortion. The smiling photo taken from just the right angle took time to create. In addition, the fact that an online persona can be so heavily curated enables the masking of what lies beneath. The middle schooler who always posts happy pictures with her BFF may be struggling emotionally, but her social media profile allows her to hide this side. The boy attempting to demonstrate his masculinity might take a “shirtless selfie” and edit the photo to enhance his muscles. This surface-level display can create significant miscommunications with friend groups and can hide the need for sympathy and empathy. If friends communicate primarily through social media—commenting and sending photos back and forth—they may be missing key signs of concern that, in the past, enabled peers to support one another and grow as well-adjusted people.

As mentioned by the students in the TEDx Talk, it can be easy to distort the truth in posts in other ways as well. They give an example of a Whatsapp conversation in which texts were deleted and changed to create the appearance that a friend was drinking underage. Such a scenario is easy for a confident tech user to fabricate.

Without proper oversight warning signs can be missed and social connections develop in very different ways. Parents and guardians should create open and consistent lines of communication where they are inquiring about the posts coming up on their children’s newsfeeds. Asking leading questions--i.e., “I didn’t realize Maria was trying out for the basketball team...Why do you think she put that photo up?” “I see Sean and Miles have become friends again...I thought you told me they didn’t like each other anymore?” Even when they see the adult as “clueless” in these interactions, the initiation of consistent conversations will support their awareness of signs of concern.

What is the emotional toll?

Robin Dunbar, a researcher at the University of Oxford, has delved deeply into the study of friendship. From this work has come Dunbar’s Number, a theory asserting that the average human can maintain a maximum of 150 defined relationships at any one time. The number is based on brain size and other cognitive factors, and certainly contradicts the hundreds—and, potentially, thousands—of connections many of us have through social media channels. In an NPR interview from 2011 Dunbar states, “relationships involved across very big units become very casual—and don’t have that deep meaning and sense of obligation and reciprocity that you have with your close friends.”

According to Dunbar, “there are some neurological mechanisms in place to help us cope with the ever-growing amount of social connections our life seems to require.” However, these connections are not defined as “friend” relationships. While Dunbar’s research team posits that we still tend to actively interact with amounts of people consistent with Dunbar’s Number, we are seeing trends in friendship development that fly in the face of this. Receiving a low number of responses to a post can equate to a feeling of loneliness and isolation. Connecting with a large number of people online can provide an inaccurate sense of connectedness, potentially altering understanding of who and what a friend is.

Despite the challenges that arise as a result of social media’s widespread influence on relationship development, we have the ability to affect children’s developing social-emotional competence. Through modeling compassion, empathy, and respect, we can help our children develop and apply these skills to both face-to-face and online interactions.

We can also encourage children to participate in groups and activities related to their interests—clubs or teams, for instance—and have conversations with them about the meaning and development of their face-to-face relationships. This can help to balance their social connections that are taking place online.


Where do we go from here?

As our ability to connect digitally and globally increases, our definition of friendship continues to shift. Adults are both users of technology and guides for future generations; our first step is to maintain awareness of the tools and trends that exist.

We must continually educate ourselves. By doing so, we are able to create more open lines of communication with our children. If we create accounts and explore the worlds of which they are a part, we have more leverage to ask educated questions—for example, I noticed you connected with someone new on social media; how do you know them? The comment Sally wrote below Bobby’s picture didn’t seem very kind; did they address each other in person about it? That was such a nice note from Mary under the picture you posted; are you all friends again?

We must also do research and stay abreast of changing laws, regulations, and new opportunities for social connections. Accessing resources such as Common Sense Media, EdSurge, and others can provide up-to-date knowledge that can help to shape the conversations we have and the relationships we develop in this dynamic, digitally-driven age.

We can never expect to be as technologically competent as our digital native children. However, by recognizing the potential for a significant emotional impact that may not look the way it used to because of the kinds social connections our children are developing, we as adults are able to stay much more engaged than we would if we turned a blind eye. As connectivity evolves, relationship and social expectations change. Our priorities are the safety and positive social-emotional development of our children. We must arm ourselves with the perspective, information, and confidence to dive into their worlds to keep them safe and to provide them with the chance to develop meaningful, sustainable relationships.

Looking for a school for your child?

Lowell School is an independent school in the Colonial Village neighborhood of Washington, DC, that offers Pre-Primary, Primary, and Middle School programs. It offers a rigorous and hands-on curriculum that nurtures each child’s natural curiosity and desire to learn, and supports the development of individual voice and self-reliance. For more information, please call 202-577-2000, email, or follow Lowell on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Topics: Technology

Sam Moser

Written by Sam Moser

Sam earned his bachelor's degrees in elementary education and psychology from the College of William and Mary and his master's degree in the integration of technology in schools from George Mason University. Sam has taught at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.