Have you seen a friend lately?
Between work (outside or inside the home), raising children, trying to remain connected to your spouse, and possibly taking care of elderly parents or other family members, it’s hard to make time to spend with friends. As kids and young adults, before the responsibilities of adult living came crashing down on us, it seems like we spent a lot more time just “hanging out,” whether it was going for coffee, doing recreational activities together or gathering at someone’s apartment to watch a favorite TV show or ball game.
When was the last time you actually saw, in person, a friend? Not a work lunch, not a playdate where you and another mom were watching your kids, but an occasion when you set aside time to sit down with another adult and either talk or do something of mutual interest together?
I’m guessing it was a while ago.
When was the last time you commented on a friend’s Facebook page or Instagram, or just “liked” something a college friend or cousin who lives far away had posted online?
As we’ve said in previous posts, we are very much in favor of the ways in which technology has helped us communicate, create connections with people we otherwise might lose to time and space, and build communities of mutual interest beyond the boundaries of geography. But while we may feel like we’re connecting when we click the like button while we’re taking a two-minute break from work to look at our Facebook or check our phones while we wait in line at the grocery store, are our most basic human needs for social contact really being met?
Why are real life friends so important?
When people lived in villages where survival depended on economic cooperation in extended family and almost tribal units, spending real-world time with other people was a matter of survival. While our ancestors may not have spent too much time sipping lattes, doing the work that kept the village going was a social activity. Women would quilt or sew together, men might gather to do the heavy lifting work of raising barns and herding animals. As the industrial revolution drew able-bodied young people away from villages and into cities, religious communities and civic organizations still provided real-life social contact. A family would be missed if they didn’t attend church. Front porches and even apartment balconies in urban areas provided places where neighbors socialized with each other. Young people used to go out cruising on weekend nights, showing off their cars and hairstyles in evolving rituals that led to dating, marriage and creating the next generation.
Now it seems like everyone’s door is locked. In some areas, people are often reasonably afraid to go out at night, much less let their children play outside. Suburbs have made walking to a town square impossible, and even at coffee houses, most people are using WiFi to work on their laptops or plugged into their headphones. Making a date with a real-life friend to have a meal, see a movie or go for a walk in a park seems as difficult as getting an appointment on a senior cabinet official’s calendar. And yet, we’re in constant contact, via the internet. I can tell you what a college friend to whom I wasn’t particularly close argued in New York State court yesterday because I saw a funny Facebook post about it, but I have no idea how my college roommate, who was the closest person in the world to me for several years, feels about her new job, the challenges of raising three daughters, and her relationship with her husband. We used to get together when we lived in the same city and pick up the phone to catch up when we didn’t – now it seems like we only keep in vague touch online.
Think about how you felt the last time you spent child-free, device-free, private time with a friend. Were you able to say things you definitely wouldn’t say online or in earshot of the kids? Did you feel more relaxed? Did you end the time saying, “Let’s do this again soon?” Did you do it again?
It’s not just in your head that real-life relationships make you feel better. A 2010 study indicated that real-life friendships were just as indicative of a person’s health and life expectancy as their alcohol and tobacco use. In fact, social relationships were even more important than a person’s level of physical activity or obesity!
What about real-world friendships for kids?
One of our members on the Unplugged Family Facebook Group (the irony does not escape us! :)) lamented that her son, who had spent the last summer playing outside with a friend, would not go outside to play. It was summer again and she asked her son where the friend was. Her son said, “He’s inside playing computer games.”
Another mama we know wanted her son to spend more summer time with his friends and suggested that they invite his buddies over. She offered to bake cookies and thought they would have a nice afternoon. He told her, “We don’t have enough computers.” When our mama friend was understandably confused, her son explained that the boys he hangs out with all play computer games, so spending an afternoon together would necessitate all of them being able to play.
We know intuitively that kids need real-world friendships, the same way we know that they need to play outside and eat fruits and vegetables. In this age of online relationships, however, real-world friendships are even more important. Real world friendships provide a real-world lens through which kids can view those images they see projected through social media. The images posted online, as we adults know, are idealized and airbrushed, not real. If adults feel anxiety and depression when they see posts on Facebook of their college friends looking thinner, richer and happier than they feel, how must kids who haven’t yet developed that perspective feel? Real world friends show kids what it’s really like to be a kid – good parts and bad.
Real world friendships also prepare young people to enter the working world, where they will be expected to interact with actual human beings, even if they are in the tech industry. Learning to navigate the ups and downs of relationships where communication is longer than 140 characters or a “like” on a picture, figuring out how to express emotions in more complex ways than “LOL” or “XOXO,” are all an essential part of growing into a mature adult. Without real-world friendships, how can kids grow up to live in the real world?
How do we help our kids build real-world friendships?
- Model real-world friendships ourselves. Spend time with grown-up friends.
- Facilitate participation in events where kids can meet real people who share their interests. Sports, scouts, music, even book clubs. Try not to impose your own interests on your kids. Ask what they like to do and see if there’s a group they could join. Cost can be a barrier to some activities, but many public libraries and schools host free events and youth recreational activities, as do many religious organizations.
- Invite your kids’ friends to your home. Maybe even invite their friends and their friends’ parents! Make socializing in person the norm, not a thing of the past.
- Ask your children about their friends at school or from activities. Lots of kids spend time texting their friends. Suggest taking them out for ice cream on a Friday night (with their parents’ permission, of course!). Try to create in person ways for kids to hang out with those they like to text.
- Do social activities as a family. Take the lead in organizing groups of families from your children’s school, your church or your neighborhood to get together for a day at the park or the ice skating rink. In some cities, block parties can be a great way for neighbors to socialize and build community.
Children pay attention to what they see us do, not what we tell them to do. If we tell our children to go play outside but we’re inside hooked up to our laptop and phone, we can understand why they just might give me some grief!
The great news is that real life friendships are contagious! Once we start to spend more time with our adult friends, their families, and our kids’ friends’ families, we can build a network of others who enjoy doing real world activities together. Whether we find those networks through school, church, social clubs or extended family who live close by, we can begin to rebuild the kinds of communities that keep us going in rough times and give us places to celebrate the happy times!