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Social media 'friends' are not real friends

Charlotte Hilton Andersen is the author of the book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything and runs the popular health and fitness website of the same name, where she tries out a new workout every month, specializing...

What we lose when we focus mainly on social media 'friends'

In a world of fast fashion, fast food and fast money, we may also be making friends faster — but not fast friends. And that's a problem, according to a new study.

I moved a lot as a kid. Like a lot a lot. At the time it seemed fine because it was all I knew. I had my siblings to play with and my books to read and my inner angst to work through so I was occupied. Then when I grew up, I married a man who may possibly be the only person I know who's moved more than I have. And we've continued to move. But even though I am a seasoned vet in the packing-box wars, our last move two years ago hit me particularly hard and I sunk into a deep depression that didn't lift for nearly a year.

The reason? I'd left behind all my friends.

It sounds silly. I am a grown woman, after all. But I'd been blessed with a particularly close group of girlfriends and I hadn't anticipated how hard it would be to lose them. During previous moves it was always hard to say goodbye but never was it this absolutely gut-wrenching. I was blindsided by my grief. I hadn't expected it to feel like such a loss and yet it really was. It wasn't until I really let myself grieve that loss that I was able to start to feel better. I knew I wanted to make new friends but this time I felt more tentative reaching out. What if I made more great friends, only to have to lose them too if we moved again? Maybe I should keep things light, informal... disposable?

I'm not the only one asking that question according to a new study on friendship published in Personal Relationships. They found that making good, solid, life-long friends — the kind of friend you can call when you find out your husband is cheating or when your kid gets diarrhea in the middle of the grocery store (true story) — may be becoming a casualty of our modern society.

One explanation, according to the study, is the problem I've always apparently had (and didn't know about until now): We move around a lot. Our nomadic culture encourages people to move suddenly across the country for jobs, to change states for a better selection of activities or to move many miles to follow a romance. But the more we move, the more we see friendships as "disposable," the authors said.

More: 11 Signs your friend is actually a toxic mess

Wait, isn't this situation exactly what social media was invented for? On the surface, yes. According to research done by Berkeley; Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the like do a great job of helping us maintain weak friendships — those people we still feel an affection for but don't need to be a meaningful part of their lives. But when it comes to forming strong ties, social media may actually be hurting us.

Spending time on social media, it appears, may make us feel connected to a lot of people but it can impede genuine connections. Call it the modern friendship paradox: The more energy and time we spend on weaker social media connections, the less energy and time we have to put toward making those strong, deep, real connections.

Indeed, previous research has found that the number of close friends Americans report has decreased by one-third in recent years. This is a significant loss because it's your close friends who can really save you when the hard stuff hits. And make no mistake: The hard stuff will hit. Sure, your online friends may be supportive and may even send money or flowers or prayers — and these are all wonderful gestures — but we all need at least one person we can call in the middle of the night and who will be there, no matter what.

More: 30 Beautiful quotes about the magic of friendship

This is what this last move taught me. I never realized how much I needed these kind of friends... until I lost them. Fortunately I've learned and now I'm focusing on making better friendships — and being a better friend. And sure, deep love means the potential for deep heartache but ultimately all friendships (and relationships) end one way or another so I might as well love them with all my heart while I can. And if I'm really lucky that will be a long, long time.

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