I was an eager, early adopter of Facebook—back when you needed an invitation and a school email to join. In high school, I quickly populated my friend list with elementary school classmates I hadn’t seen since moving away from Michigan.
When my family later moved from Ohio to Nebraska, Facebook became a tool to track the lives of my friends left behind. Then, by the time I left to attend college in yet another state, I was hooked to my newsfeed and all the ways it allowed me to feel close with old friends. But was it a false sense of friendship? In all but a few cases, social media became my only method for keeping up rapidly progressing lives. Phone calls were rare. Visits were even rarer. Were these people really still friends—or only in the social media sense of the word? It seems many of my relationships had fallen into the trap of “ambient intimacy,” a term coined in 2007 by Leisa Reichelt, now the Head of Service Design for the Australian Government. She described it as the ability to “keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to because time and space conspire to make it impossible.” Even at the time of her writing—in the dawn of Twitter and before the advent of Instagram or Snapchat—she expressed concern with how ambient intimacy could lead to “hyperstimulation.”
Ten years later, she says some of those fears have been realized. “These days, social media has lots of uses and far greater adoption,” she told me. “It is incredibly noisy and you now have to make an effort to prune things back.” If and when it does start to feel like too much, she suggests curating social media accounts, snoozing notifications at night, putting the phone away while with friends or family and never “messaging people on social media when they are under the same roof”. Then there’s another pitfall she didn’t yet recognize at the time of her original writing: what we often see portrayed on social media is not an accurate view of life, but, rather, a curated one. In that way, ambient intimacy can increase our anxiety by inviting comparisons to the “highlight reels” of other people. On the other hand, virtual interactions may be more comfortable to people with social anxiety—but can prevent personal growth, says Erika Martinez, Psy.D., founder of Envision Wellness. “Technology isn't a bad thing, but it can become a crutch when used as the only form of social contact,” she said. “There's something intangible about being in someone's presence that technology can't approximate or replace.”
To make a point of coming up for fresh air and face-to-face conversations, Martinez suggests following the “exposure hierarchy” method by making one or two concrete goals related to decreasing technological reliance. “Start with something small and that's not too anxiety-provoking, and do work on it for 21 days,” she said. “Continue to add another goal that's slightly more anxiety provoking than the one before and practice it for 21 days.” If scanning Facebook for new updates is simply a matter of subconscious habit, it presents an opportunity for more mindfulness, says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D. “It can be helpful to simply take a short pause to ask, ‘Why I am interested in this? Does seeing this or reading this make me feel better, closer to another person, or more connected? Does it increase my well-being?’” If the answers are no, she says it could be helpful to turn attention inward with meditation, exercise, journaling or calming breathing practices. When you do make the effort to have more intimacy in relationships than just ambiance, the rewards are great. Recently, I was able to get together with a good friend who lives in another state. At the end of our visit, we both agreed it was one of the best afternoons either of us had had in awhile. When is the same ever said about time spent on Facebook?