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Social Media and the Illusion of Being in Touch with Old Friends


My husband recently deleted all his Facebook friends who he hadn’t seen or heard from in the last 10 years. If you haven’t reached your late 20s yet, that might sound unimaginable. Trust me, one day there will be connections on social media that you can’t even remember. “Jessie? I know a Jessie?”

I admired what my husband was doing, but felt I couldn’t do the same.

“These are people I’ve known since I was 6 years old,” I argued.

“If you haven’t spoken to them in over a decade, do you really know them?”

He made a great point.

So what is it that tethers me to these superficial connections?

A plethora of social media research has found that people are lonelier than ever despite increasing social connections online. Obviously we aren’t getting the kind of social support out of Facebook than we may have thought.

“Reams of published research show that it’s the quality, not the quantity of social interaction, that best predicts loneliness,” Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at NYU, told The Atlantic.

What am I really getting out of keeping a collection of friends I haven’t seen since the 1990s? Hearing about their lives brings perhaps a transitory sense of happiness or satisfaction but nothing more. I don’t live in New Orleans anymore, so some of the things and places they talk about are completely lost on me.

I don’t even know anyone who’d want to know that this person just had a baby or this person moved to Milwaukee. Maybe my mom? Even then, I bet I’d spend the first five minutes explaining to her who the person was.

“Remember she did that ‘Magic School Bus’ presentation with me in third grade?”

“Sure, dear.”

I figure not nixing these old chums is tied to the following:

  • Not wanting to seem unfriendly.
  • Worrying that I may need them one day.
  • Fear of social isolation.
  • Liking their attention.

Let’s address these issues. As I tease through them, the hangups seem to go away.

You can’t control what other people think.

This is something I struggle with every day. My knee-jerk reaction is to do whatever I have to do to make people feel positively about me. I have to stop and remind myself that worrying about what other people think is a waste of time. Might as well worry about the vacuum of space. As my favorite of the Four Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz says:

Don’t take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

Don’t be a fair-weather friend.

You shouldn’t keep friends around for a rainy day. Speaking to someone after years have gone by just because you need something from them isn’t friendly at all.

I remember learning the term “fair-weather friend” from my mother when I was about 12. I had a friend who ran hot and cold. For a long time, she was my best friend and wanted to spend all her time with me. Suddenly she wanted nothing to do with me. A few months later, she wanted to be best friends again. It drove me nuts. Apparently she liked to be my friend when I was happy and didn’t need her. As soon as I began hanging out with other people, she wanted to be friends again.

Mom said it was something that would happen a lot in life and it has. The minute I met my husband, two old flames that I hadn’t seen in more than six months came out of the woodwork. It was jarring and embarrassing. That’s why I know I don’t want to be a fair-weather friend.

Socializing online doesn’t mean you’re not isolated.

Logging onto Facebook shouldn’t count as getting out of the house for today. We all need to enter into real-life social situations on a regular basis.

As someone who has struggled with social anxiety, I know that the longer I’m cooped up with the computer, the harder it’s going to be to go to a party or out to dinner. Socializing is like a muscle. When you don’t use it, anxiety pools around those events. Then you begin turning down invitations or dropping out at the last minute.

Even if you’re not socially anxious, speaking with people face-to-face is an opportunity to hone your social skills. In real life, you’re not able to spend forever coming up with a comment. You can’t edit or delete that comment later. Real-life socializing keeps you quick on your feet. Besides, I can’t imagine a charming person who got that way by sitting at a computer.

Who am I kidding? What attention?

I’m not getting attention from any of the people I haven’t seen in over a decade. We don’t interact online. Perhaps this is because they don’t feel like they know me well enough to interact with me, but isn’t that precisely the reason we should unfriend? I don’t think we can glean a whole lot from online profiles alone.

They could also unfollow on Facebook or mute me on Twitter. It’s the lame equivalent of making sure you never see updates from a person — but you don’t have to give up your follower count. Shouldn’t we just unfriend?

There are definitely times I wanted to post on someone’s page but felt it was too intrusive. When I found out a childhood friend was getting married on the same day as I was, I almost posted on her Facebook page, then thought better of it. I had unfollowed the woman’s updates ages ago. The only reason I knew she was getting married on that date was because a good friend told me so.

So maybe my husband is right. Maybe all the reasons I refuse to unfriend people are actually all the reasons I should. What would you do?

Social Media and the Illusion of Being in Touch with Old Friends

Sarah Newman, MA, MFA

Sarah Newman is the managing editor and associate publisher of PsychCentral and the founding editor-in-chief of the Poydras Review.

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APA Reference
Newman, S. (2018). Social Media and the Illusion of Being in Touch with Old Friends. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 1 May 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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