On the Psychology of Friendship and Social Media – by Cedar Sanderson
I ran across a paper the other day about the correlation of social media and self-esteem. The study was conducted on people who posted a photo, and how they felt when it got a lot of ‘likes’ versus few or none. The results were not terribly surprising, but still interesting when teased out into a statistical analysis of the human reactions to one another. The takeaway from the paper: “we also predicted that having a sense of purpose in life – or a “self-organizing life aim that organizes and stimulates goals, manages behaviors, and provides a sense of meaning” would moderate the effect of likes on self-esteem.”
So, having a purposeful life means that one’s self-esteem is less contingent on external validation. Not that the external validation of one’s social media connections ‘liking’ one’s curated glimpses into one’s life means much. Unpacking this more, we start to see that a ‘like’ or even the slightly more effort of choosing an emoji that more nearly conveys a real reaction to a photo, is worth something only if we consider that the viewer could have scrolled on by without the reflexive tiny ‘click’ of a mouse. So little energy, so little time… and yet we give that power. We crave the flood of validation and the emotional rush it delivers to our brains, so we spend far more time and energy on creating just the right photo for our social media connections to get the maximum possible reactions to it. There are people who make a career out of this. It’s not hard to prove my point – google ‘Instagram Husbands’ for ridiculous articles about the travails of the man behind the camera catering to his needy partner while she poses and pouts.
But that’s an extreme example. And, by reading through the study of how people reacted to the validation via social media, we see that not everyone succumbs to the temptation to become an attention whore. Some can find validation through their own selves, by living a goal-oriented life. One presumes that their self-esteem is thus supported by meeting goals, which makes them feel good, and they challenge themselves not by composing the perfect photo or status post, but by setting new goals that have measurable results in the real world.
So why does this work? “individuals’ self-esteem was responsive to evidence of one’s value to others, even in virtual environments” Humans like to feel needed, to feel as though they bring something of value to the table in a relationship, even one as attenuated as social media connection online alone. When an individual sees the likes pile up, they believe they have made someone else out there happy, and in return their reward/pleasure center of the brain is stimulated. Even in person, friendships have this value-reward attached to them. If one of the friends perceives that they have no value to the other friend (or to a group of friends) their self-esteem takes a hit, and their connection to the other person weakens or fails entirely. So the social media study is, really, a snapshot of how we interact with friends. It would be absurd to say that someone who only ever ‘likes’ a social media status is a friend, but yet in a friendship, with no validation, the relationship is eroded.
Self-validation sounds like a perfect solution. You don’t need anyone. You’ve mastered the art of feeling good about yourself. You set goals, and you meet them, and you set harder goals and meet those, too. You’re the king of the world! If you tell yourself that you’re doing great, you believe you.
I don’t know about you, but I have trouble doing that. My internal dialogue has a lot more sarcasm and despair than perkiness and optimism. I enjoy seeing a photo get likes, but it’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t (although I will admit to more than a little feeling of irritation that FB chooses to hide content via their algorithms since they want to get paid more than to let me show off my work. Well, duh.). What matters to me, deeply, is what my friends think about the purpose of my life, the internal goals I am driven by, and my value to some few humans on the face of this earth who matter to me. Because they can’t all matter, except in abstract.
That’s not a mean thing to say. “But the People! Teh Global Community!” Um, no, not really. I don’t know all those people. While they matter in the abstract sense of humanity, and yes, humanity does matter to me because people are individually pretty amazing and cool and I usually like folks once I get to meet them and know them… but they aren’t my friends until that happens. My self-esteem and valuation of my contribution to society is unruffled as long as those who form my social circle like me. And maybe like my photos, too.
How many people can really matter to us? I’ve seen numbers that vary anywhere from 300, to 9. The numbers tend to go down with age – the nine came from a study of people aged 50+ – an artifact of reduced external context (active workplaces, social interactions, loss of friends and family to death, and lessened need for external validation). I came across a concept I rather like, metaphorically speaking of our relationships with the social circle as being like a convoy. The term in the paper “used to evoke the image of a protective layer, in this case, of family and friends, who surround the individual and help in the successful negotiation of life’s challenges. Each person can be thought of as moving through life surrounded by a group of other people to whom he or she is related through the exchange of social support.”
Or, since one of the few movies I can remember curling up with my Dad to watch, in the era when we had a CB radio, was Convoy… I think of it as each truck being a person (and my mental image comes from another movie, one I watched with my kids: Cars). Sometimes they travel together, chatting on the radio, and other times some of the group peels off to drive down different paths. They wouldn’t be traveling together if they weren’t providing support to one another, even if all that is is a friendly voice on the radio keeping you from falling asleep at the wheel. Sometimes maybe the support is more tangible – like help changing a flat tire. Sometimes you need help, sometimes they do. It’s a network of caring that gives us the validation externally we can’t always manage internally, to come back to my original premise.
It’s not that self-esteem is the be-all and end-all. Feeling good about oneself no matter what isn’t the point of life. There’s time when life sucks, and our internal dialogue does, too. With a purpose to work toward – be that our daily work, our family, or more complex desires to leave the world a better place for our having been in it – we’ll experience less desire for ‘likes’ than if we lack an internal compass that is pointing us in the direction of our goals. All of us, however, lose that direction from time to time. Grief, stress, fatigue, there are so many reasons that our needle starts to spin aimlessly. For those times, traveling with that convoy of friends really means support is near at hand. Self-validation means that those friends will be there: the instagrammer will find that when their pouts turn to real sadness, the shallow ‘likers’ are long gone on to the next fun photo in their feed. But the true friends, the ones who are always there, they give a shoulder to cry on. It can’t be all crying all the time, or the convoy breaks up because ‘man, take that thing into a garage and get it fixed!’ It’s a relationship. It’s back-and-forth, sometimes you need a hand up, and sometimes they do. Without self-validation, you can’t have true friendship.
And without self-validation, we’d be less able to survive the death of friendship. Not a physical death: the convoy metaphor has the trucks veering off a shared path for many reasons. Lack of mutual support, a need to deliver goods to another location (moving, job changes, slow decrease in communication from daily chatting to the occasional ‘like’ on a photo), a breakdown that can’t be helped with (be that mental or physical – some people push everyone away when they are in pain). I have lost touch with many friends, for many reasons, on the road of life. I’ve formed permanent bonds with relatively few, partly because I’m an Odd and partly because of my odd upbringing (although it is certainly arguable that I’m an Odd because I was brought up oddly). We moved a lot when I was a kid. Even with the rise of the internet and the explosive growth of social media that allow us to be more connected in more ways to more people in more places than at any previous time in history, if you don’t have the ability to sit down in person and re-form the bonds from time to time, friendships fade. That’s part of the reason that most long-distance romantic relationships fail to thrive. Even though I’m in one of the few rare exceptions, I’ll be the first to say that had I not been impetuous enough to trust him and make a long visit, we would never have been more than online friends with no real romance between us.
When a friendship dies, sometimes we’re left sitting on the curb wondering ‘was it something I did? Was it something I didn’t do, or say, or…?’ and without the ability to self-validate, we might find ourselves stuck there, unable to form new bonds out of fear of what happens when those bonds break. It’s like rubber bands stretched tight…if you don’t let go, it’s going to break, snap back, and hit you in the face, and that hurts. Having enough self-confidence to let go and carry on alone is crucial to long-term mental health and survival. Taking the risks to reach out despite fear of the immediate (rejection) or the future (death) means the ability to form new friendships. To maintain old ones that have been fading. Or to know when it’s time to let go, and travel with the diminished convoy, talking over the radio and stopping to help fix a busted whatchamajigger. Life doesn’t stop when we want to cry. Life doesn’t like all our photos the same. Life just keeps going, and if we stay focused on the horizon of our purposes in life, we can keep going, too. Look down at your phone all the time to monitor your social media, and you’ll be ‘most likely to get wiped out in the crosswalk.’
Akiyama and Antonucci, Journal of Gerontology, 1987: Social Networks in Adult Life and a Preliminary Examination of the Convoy Model
- Andreassen et. al., Addictive Behaviors, 2017: The relationship between addictive use of social media, narcissism, and self-esteem: Findings from a large national survey
- Burrow and Rainone, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2017: How many likes did I get?: Purpose moderates links between positive social media feedback and self-esteem.