In today’s ultra-connected world, a friend is no longer just a friend.
Thanks to a modern-day cocktail of social media, pop culture and shifting societal norms, today’s friendship roles can range anywhere from Facebook friends to friends-with-benefits — and maybe even the occasional frenemy.
We live in an era where a friendship takes on many different meanings, which means people have a greater propensity to develop what social psychologists call “weak ties” than ever before. As a result, it’s becoming less common for people to have one strong group of core friends and more common for people to have a large network of acquaintances.
Weak ties are better known as relationships that only scratch the surface, as far as impacting our personal lives. Many of our Facebook friends are examples of weak ties because they understand our lives in a series of select snippets and moments, which are accessible to everyone in our friends or followers list.
On the other hand, our core or “primary” ties are family and friendship bonds crucial to our identity and sense of self — so crucial that we quite literally wouldn’t be ourselves without these relationships. Our core friends hear our personal stories and know, love and take an interest in our personalities, identities and lives far beyond the screen. We see them as the family members we’ve chosen.
Core friends are dynamic, meaning that even with factors like distance and changing interests, we remain bonded to them over the course of many years and share with them a special connection, even when we aren’t around them on a regular basis.
Some psychologists fear that as we develop bigger social circles of acquaintances, though, we’ll end up with weaker core bonds, which can have long-term implications.
This is because as we age, primary friendships become even more important to health, happiness and wellbeing, according to a 2017 study from the journal, “Personal Relationships.”
In the study, researcher William Chopik, a psychology professor from Michigan State University, analyzed more than 270,000 people in nearly 100 countries and concluded that while both family and friend relationships were linked with happiness and health as a whole, at older ages, people were more likely to report that their happiness stemmed solely from their strong friendships rather than family members.
This isn’t to say that family relationships aren’t important, but Chopik’s research focused on the previously ignored topic of how primary friendships (specifically non-family members) impact individuals later in life.
As a college student, I find that the line between our acquaintances and our core friends is oftentimes blurred. Our strongest friends now may have been strangers just two years ago. How do we know who we’ll stay close with after graduation? Is there a way of knowing? What if we burn bridges with someone who, later in life, ends up being our colleague, roommate, best friend, boss or even romantic partner?
While the topic of friendship can feel uncertain, especially for 20-somethings on the cusp of the post-college bubble, we need to realize that when it comes to the size of our so-called social network, quantity doesn’t always mean quality. Having close friends — and being a close friend — is arguably one of the most vital and transformative parts of life, and it will only become more important as we grow up.
Even with Facebook friends, followers and all the other people we’ll meet in our lifetime, whether they’re fleeting or forever, we shouldn’t let ourselves drown in the maze of temporary connections. I believe that if we truly want to cultivate and maintain friendships that withstand the test of time, it’s our responsibility to invest in those who are central to our lives.
And while we don’t exactly need a research study to understand the value of friendship, in a world where it’s glamorous to always be busy, successful and an all-around “boss,” a reminder never hurt.
Darcy Schild is a UF journalism junior. Her columns focus on human behavior and sociology.