In our pursuit of mental well-being, the significance of our social interactions, especially the quality of our friendships, often goes unnoticed. It’s been said that “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with,” but what does this mean when the core of our friendships are online, especially with regards to our mental health? Is there a tangible link between our digital relationships and our psychological well-being? Let’s explore this interesting connection.
Understanding Friendship Circles
Friendship circles are more than just a group of people we regularly spend time with. They are our support systems, our sounding boards, and our mirrors reflecting back the parts of ourselves we may overlook. These circles influence our attitudes, behaviors, and how we perceive the world around us.
Some people find it extremely difficult to build these social circles, be it at school, work, or throughout the course of life – being naturally socially awkward makes it that little bit harder.
Being socially awkward isn’t the be-all and end-all – socially awkward meaning that people find it hard to interact in social situations – but it does mean people need to take some extra steps to fit in. Going to classes, putting themselves in awkward situations to learn and grow, and even going to therapy.
Online spaces have enabled people to develop friendships in new ways. In the golden era of blogging and forums in the early 2000s, people were exercising this newfound meeting space to develop close bonds with people of similar interests. That accelerated with social media and multiplayer gaming, proliferating the intersection of interests and access to spaces and platforms to meet and talk to new people.
Those who struggle socially are able to shed some of the anxieties of real-life conversation, thriving in voice-only, pseudonymous, or anonymous spaces – connecting with those who may have the same obstacles they do.
The Psychological Impact of Friendships
Research has consistently indicated that strong social networks can play a pivotal role in maintaining good mental health. Here’s how:
- Emotional Support: In times of stress, anxiety, or emotional turmoil, having a supportive circle of friends can be a significant protective factor. They provide a sense of belonging and acceptance, helping to ward off feelings of isolation and loneliness.
- Shared Experiences: Participating in activities together: sharing laughter, and even navigating through tough times collectively can build resilience and create a sense of unity, further promoting mental health.
- Positive Reinforcement: Encouragement and validation from friends can boost self-esteem and self-worth, fostering a healthier self-image.
The Dark Side: Toxic Friendships and Mental Health
While we’ve discussed the benefits of good, supportive friendships, it’s equally important to recognize the potential harm of toxic friendships on our mental health. These toxic relationships can come in many forms and might not always be overtly aggressive or hostile, making them difficult to identify. However, their impact on our mental well-being can be significant and lasting.
Toxic friendships often consist of friends who persistently belittle you, compete with you, or create unnecessary conflict, instilling feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and anxiety. They may attempt to undermine your accomplishments, making you feel less confident about your abilities. This constant stream of negativity can induce significant stress, lower self-esteem, and, in extreme cases, contribute to depressive symptoms.
Another sign of toxic friendships is consistent one-sidedness, where the give-and-take dynamics are heavily skewed. You may find yourself always being the listener, the comforter, and the problem-solver, without receiving the same level of support in return. Over time, this can lead to feeling used and emotionally drained.
Being online exposes you to these types of interactions casually – through platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter – but, also, can be an accelerant, a catalyst for these interactions taking place in friendships. Both friendships that exist in-person but spill-over into online spaces as well as friendships that are purely developed and maintained online can be made worse by their online-ness.
Sat at home, behind a keyboard or talking into a microphone, there’s a physical disconnect that can make being meaner and more toxic easier. You’re not looking someone in the eye. Someone isn’t looking you in the eye. Trolls are the epitome of this.
When a person who struggles social at school, work, home, and the settlement their living in is the victim of a toxic online friendship, it can reinforce and double their isolation. They found a space they were comfortable and happy online. If that becomes tarnished and dangerous, if they become vulnerable online – maybe more so than at their workplace, their school – their mental health can deteriorate quickly.
Choosing the Right Circle
It’s worth emphasizing that when it comes to friendships and mental health, quality trumps quantity. Surrounding yourself with a large number of friends – which is very possible in online spaces, where the potential to interact and meet people has a much higher ceiling than at school or work – does not automatically equate to a robust support system. In fact, having numerous connections can sometimes lead to superficial relationships that may not provide the emotional sustenance and understanding we need during challenging times.
Choosing the right circle is, thus, an essential aspect of nurturing our mental well-being. That involves fostering relationships with individuals who are not just there to share the good times but are also willing to walk with you during life’s storms. They are people who uplift you, inspire you, understand you, and accept you as you are, with all your strengths and flaws.
The right circle of friends encourages you to grow, both emotionally and intellectually. They respect your boundaries and understand your needs, even when you need time and space for yourself. These friends also motivate you to step out of your comfort zone, to face your fears, and to confront your challenges. They’re not afraid to provide constructive criticism, but they do so from a place of love and respect, fostering personal growth.
Our friendship circles do more than shape our weekend plans – they subtly but significantly influence our mental health. The support, shared experiences, and positive reinforcement that a healthy circle of friends can offer are invaluable assets in our mental health toolkit.
It’s easy to apply this to online spaces. Many friendship groups are born from similar interests or experiences. As such, it’s very easy to keep things ‘superficial’, or simply focussed on those interests without veering off into other topics. But, at the same time, the pseudonymity, the anonymity can make ‘confessions’ – being vulnerable – easier. It’s a different you. A pixelated you. While posts, videos, audio-clips, and comments – all the detritus and scraps of information online – can live in a state of immortality – screenshotted, lost in the flow of the feed, copied, undeletable – it feels much easier to send out a close-to-home vulnerable statement to online friends than it does to say it to someone standing in front of you. There’s connection in the disconnect. A real feeling of belonging.
The digital space can be constructive, as much as it can be destructive. It’s just a new context.
So, in our journey towards better mental health, let’s not forget to assess and nurture our social interactions. After all, friendships are not just about having fun together; they can be a cornerstone of our emotional and psychological well-being.
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