How Our Virtual Friends Are Replacing Our Real Ones

Sorry, can’t talk, gotta update my Instagram.

“Sorry, what was that?”

Once again, my friend Annie had been focused solely on her phone rather than listening to my woes.

“I don’t think I can stay in my relationship any longer. I’m considering breaking up with him,” I repeated.

Annie looked up and gave me a quick hug before offering up a few words of advice then hastily turning back to her phone to scroll through Instagram. Hurt, I was taken aback. When did her need to ‘like’ a distant cousin’s holiday snap suddenly supersede our friendship?

I wanted to confront her, but she looked way too consumed in her cousin Sally’s contrived cocktail selfies. So instead, we finished our meals, hugged goodbye and went our separate ways – but this time we both pulled phones out of our handbags before turning the corner.

In an age where social networks dictate society, it seems we now spend more time interacting with our friends virtually than physically. With Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Twitter (just to name a few) we are already overwhelmed with the amount of channels we can use to connect with our friends. One such example of our obsession with virtual networking is the recent launch of the new Hey! Vina app, a tool designed to help women find new friends using a series of questions to understand users’ likes and dislikes, and a swipe right/swipe left system, similar to Tinder, to confirm a connection.

When I first heard about the app I rolled my eyes, I didn’t need an app to help me make friends; I already had them. But it made me ponder why there were people who did. Couldn’t they make friends the normal way – at work, college or through their kids? Or have we become so disconnected from ourselves that we can no longer be friends without technology? Does this mean we should just accept shallow coffee dates spent glued to our Instagram feeds?

“Through our adult lives we go a lot of places that our existing friendships don’t always support and it becomes time to expand our circles,” says co-founder and CEO of Hey! Vina, Olivia June Poole.

Hey! Vina uses a swipe right/swipe left system, similar to Tinder, to confirm a friendship connection.

Hey! Vina uses a swipe right/swipe left system, similar to Tinder, to confirm a friendship connection.

And it seems she’s right. A poll taken by The Telegraph found a whopping 48 per cent of women who became mothers reported their old friendships disintegrated while a new circle took their place. Sex educator and feminist, Shere Hite explains this phenomenon as, “preferring to stick with other women in the same relationship situation.”

So as modern, tech-savvy women, it seems an app like Hey! Vina may answer all our friendship challenges and problems. Though I don’t know if forming a friendship over instant messages is my cup of tea.

But maybe Poole has a point about needing to expand our circles as we grow up, and grow apart. Take Annie and I; we’re both in different types of relationships; I’ve been in a committed one for over two years while she’s a fan of having fun with any guy who flashes her a smile.

Even so, it does seem strange in this day and age, when it’s never been easier to stay connected to our stockpile of friends, that I’d need to turn to app to find myself a new Annie. But data from the General Social Survey reported the number of us who feel we have no close friends has tripled in recent years.

It’s a worrying statistic when you consider the significant impact our friendships have on our health and overall happiness. According to University of Oxford evolutionary psychologist, Dr Robin Dunbar, we need at least three to five key friends to feel accepted in the community and happy with ourselves. Moments spent with our best and most sacred friends trigger feelgood neuropeptides, or endorphins, which is why we enjoy spending quality time with them.

Brighton University and the University of North Carolina also collected data from close to 150 studies and found the social life we share with our closest gal pals has a significant influence on our health. Those of us with limited social networks have a 50 per cent higher chance of early mortality and another US study discovered if a close friend is overweight or obese, our chance of becoming obese skyrockets a whopping 171 per cent. Crazy, right?!

Fortunately, the same study revealed our happiness has the potential to increase by 25 per cent if we have a positive relationship with our friends. Whoever said keep your friends close and your enemies closer clearly didn’t know what they were on about.

So it seems that despite our constant need to feel connected online, it’s our oldest and dearest friendships that are the most important for us to maintain in order to reach peak mental and physical health. Which is why, in an age where it’s considered cool to have as many ‘friends’ as we can on social networks, it may be worthwhile fostering our real world friendships face-to-face, rather than screen-to-screen.

Lying in bed alone, questioning what I was going to do about my boy dilemma after my unsatisfying brunch date, I was startled by a knock at the front door. It was Annie, standing on my door step, ice-cream tub in hand. With a warm and familiar smile she launched at me with the world’s biggest bear hug. We talked for hours making our way through the Ben & Jerry’s, focused solely on one another, I enjoyed every second. It was just like old times, expect this time, I insisted we both keep our phones in our bags.

Comment: Have your friendships been negatively impacted by technology?