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Opinions of Thursday, 19 January 2017

Columnist: Kwadwo Agyapong Antwi

Social media and the end of friendship

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Research indicates that humans have the cognitive capacity to adequately maintain just about 150 social connections. How many 'friends' do you have on Facebook alone, and how do you prevent social media from ruining your family, friendships and happiness?

I bet, like me, you received an avalanche of messages during the holiday period; notably on 25th December and 1st January, from a milliard of friends and enemies scattered all across the globe – made possible by the power of social media.

How many did you read? How many did you feel were genuinely written with you in mind and not those chain messages hurriedly copied and broadcasted to your pages?

If you were fortunate to receive some few phone calls how did you cherish those calls compared with the flurry of social media messages?

Social media has allowed our generation to create connections that would be the envy of previous generations, but has also fundamentally altered our experience of friendship to the point where its meaning is tipping into obscurity.

You could think of the impact of social media on friendship as a diluted squash at a children’s party. The magic of squash is its ability to satisfy as many kids as possible albeit at a greatly reduced quality for all – in fact the more kids at a party the less satisfying each additional glass.

Research done by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggests that humans have the cognitive capacity to adequately maintain only 150 social relationships, but somehow Facebook decided to cap the friendship limit at 5000 [I haven’t quite figured out why but I guess it’s because even Mark Zuckerberg believes after 5000 any additional person is more likely to be a troll than a friend]
Social media diminishes our capacity to create genuine connections and the opportunity to have more emotionally satisfying conversations, which are essential to our well-being and happiness as a species; given that many of our numerous friends have a wider audience to interact with and an online identity to protect.

It’s therefore not at all surprising that several other research show a significantly negative correlation between times spent on Facebook and the self-esteem and happiness levels of users - this is largely triggered by occasional jealousy and tendency to compare our lives with those of our friends and enemies online.

We know deep down inside that the versions of our lives we present online do not always reflect what's really going on in our lives because of the subtle social pressure to portray our lives as more wonderful than it usually is. Even though we hardly share our disappointments, heartbreaks, failures etc. online we somehow assume that the glamorous posts from our friends and enemies are adequate portrayals of their lives, thereby increasing social pressure and tainting our life experiences.

Some other studies indicate that people who live in rural communities are substantially happier than their rural folks. This, one researcher believes, is partly attributable to "the relative absence of intimate personal acquaintanceship" in cities, and somehow, in a larger sense, social media enables modern society to live in ever larger cities with little rules and little love.

The next time you post those edited versions of your life in a desperate hunt for likes and comments [or as a way of letting the whole world know just how blissful your life is, how cute your kids are, how much love you have for your spouse….] just remember that you are merely being human - each of us craves a little attention and some validation. It appears however that the complexity of our brains enables us to intuitively discern the real from the fake, hence the number of likes and comments do not often generate the deeper emotional satisfaction we need.

So here are some simple perspectives and suggestions for you on how to create your personal or family’s social media rules: Let's begin by admitting that many of your numerous friends and followers are not real friends [you probably know this already, don't you?], which is why in the fast-moving world of posts, snaps, chats, tweets etc. it’s still relevant to create friendships and interactions that rely less on technology ; sometimes a 5 minute phone call will be worth an hour on Facebook and an hour outdoors will be worth a month of social media chats. The next time you hang out with friends, why not let the first person to pick up their phone pay the bill….trust me with this simple rule you’ll have deeper conversations and more valuable time together.

Unplug from social media once a while [you can unplug from everything digital for some weekends as a family] or have specific ‘social media free’ days or weeks, you may start by turning your notification off.…life will immediately make more sense and trust me the world will not even come to an end despite what you’ve been made to believe.