Skip to main content

Social media is a bit of a paradox: while its name suggests that it strengthens and expands our social lives, we can’t shake the feeling that social media can be anti-social. It connects us with friends and family, with strangers who become friends, and with lives that inspire us to elevate our own. At the same time, it pulls us away from the societies in which we really live and work: text alerts interrupt coffee dates, email notifications ping during work meetings, Instagram popups remind us of the people who aren’t present.

My friends and I all struggle with this. At any given time of the year, one or another of us is going through a “social media cleanse” of some kind. For me, permanently deleting social media isn’t an option; I live too far from family and close friends to be willing to go without it entirely. But I still want to feel truly present to the people around me so that I can invest in the here and now. So for me, as for many of us, here’s the question: how do I use social media to supplement, not undermine, my real relationships?

The answer to this question will vary from person to person—and may even fluctuate at different stages in your life—but there are some common considerations that can help all of us evaluate the proper place of social media in our lives.

The first thing to know is that you’re up against your own biology. Social media apps take advantage of our human dependence on dopamine, commonly known as the pleasure hormone. More technically, dopamine is the chemical messenger released by the brain in response to successful behaviors such as eating something yummy, kissing your boyfriend, succeeding at a project, or having a stimulating conversation with a new friend. Essentially, dopamine functions as a kind of rewards system that motivates us to perform naturally beneficial actions and that rewards us when we do so.

Social media “hacks” this system to make us reliant on things that are not natural to us. Likes, loves, comments, messages—all of these give users “a little dopamine hit,” trapping us in a “social-validation feedback loop,” as ex-president of Facebook Sean Parker described it. Apps rely on the effectiveness of variable rewards schedules. In the 1930s, B.F. Skinner discovered that rewarding mice at irregular intervals for their performance in experiments led to higher participation and higher success rates. The same seems to be true for humans: we are more readily habituated to a particular action or set of actions if we know that a reward could come our way—but won’t necessarily. According to former Google product manager Tristan Harris, this is the principle behind gambling machines—and it’s also used by social media developers. As he explains, “every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see, ‘What did I get?’ This is one way to hijack people’s minds and create a habit, to form a habit.”

With all this in mind, the next step to mastery over this technological system is to know your limits—your social limits, that is. In the 1990s, anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed that the human person, though social by nature, can only maintain a limited number of relationships. Dunbar proposed several correlating circles of intimacy: fifty close friends (think your dinner-party guest list), fifteen intimate friends, and five true best friends, who are often your family.

While the particular numbers vary based on temperament, there are two important takeaways: (1) Your friendship capacity is limited, so don’t expect the impossible of yourself. You cannot be friends with everyone, however much you might want to. (2) New social relationships push old ones into different circles of intimacy. To put it bluntly, you can’t make new friends and keep the old—at least not at the same degree of intimacy.

It’s inevitable that friendships will change, develop, and sometimes fade as we move and grow. We need to be honest about this and carefully evaluate which friendships we do want to maintain. On the other hand, we need to be careful about where we invest our time, particularly when it comes to social media: we don’t want to fill our “friend slots” with strangers we know only through social media or to cling to relationships that don’t extend beyond the social media context. This latter is hardest when a friendship once did exist in person but has become purely reliant on social media for its continuity.

Which brings us to when and how we actually use these connectivity mediums. While we know that dopamine is pushing us to use social media, it’s important to figure out what particular desires are involved. The amount of time we spend on apps, and the apps we use, will vary based on our state in life and our careers, but the most important thing is intentionality. The goal is to be in control of your time and your social real estate. It’s a great idea to spend a week or two keeping a journal about your social media use, asking yourself questions about when and why you use social media and getting to know your motivations and patterns of use.

Once you’ve done this first step of self-examination and have a better sense of when and why you use social media, you should be able to assess where you need to set limits. One practice would be to limit social media access to certain times of day—or perhaps to exclude it from certain times of day. For example, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to limit my morning and night usage: I stay off all social media until 11 a.m., and I get off it an hour before lights-out. Another possible practice would be to set a time limit for use of an app in a given day. You can now set a limit for the amount of time you spend on a particular app on both iPhones and Android phones. I started using this function a few days ago, setting myself a twenty-minute limit on Instagram, and was shocked to see how quickly I got a five-minute warning. Since then, I’ve been more conscious and intentional about when and how I use the app.

Along with making these small changes to help us refocus on the social aspect of social media, we can redirect this real craving for community towards our physical communities. Join a church group. Go to the local bar for trivia night. Start a reading circle. Plan a weekly playdate.

Real-life interactions can also supplement other needs that draw us to social media channels. While it may be tempting to take your questions to the internet (a bigger pool produces better answers, right?), those same answers would likely come your way through the people in your physical community. Wondering about organic sustainable clothing brands? Ask the trendy young mom at the park. Looking for the best local pizza? Ask the couple out walking their dogs after work. Wondering how to track down the kind of coffee that just suits your taste? Ask the friendly barista.

Social media is not built to satisfy your need for community: it is built to deepen it. But if we use it with awareness and intentionality, we can get the best of both worlds—enjoying a network of fruitful virtual friendships while also investing in real community with those around us.