How Social Media Can Prolong Toxic Friendships
Marian’s friendship with Sarah* didn’t start out toxic at all.
The girls met at a punk show when they were teenagers, and sort of grew up together, alongside Sarah’s younger sister. The three girls had mutual friends from as far back as grade school. Though Marian and Sarah’s relationship was never contentious when they were younger, Marian became closer to Sarah’s little sister.
After high school, Sarah attempted to reinvent herself (as many of us do), shedding the identity she grew up with and trading it for one which more closely aligned with her grandmother’s Mexican heritage, documenting the transformation on Facebook for everyone, including Marian, to see.
Because they maintained an online friendship after their “in-real-life” relationship ran its course, a lukewarm, voyeuristic toxicity began to fester over social media for Marian. After Marian pushed back against one of Sarah’s more vitriolic posts, Sarah put Marian “on blast” before blocking her on social platforms.
“You have this vehicle (social media) that shows you everything that’s going on, and so you’re kind of left with nothing else except to have a reaction to it, and reactions on Facebook allow you to have these grandiose debates sometimes,” Marian said.
'Creeping' and 'binging'
For a time, Bekah, 23, maintained social media connections with a former friend even after they stopped seeing each other. Their real-life friendship breakup happened because of tension around Bekah's new romantic relationship, Bekah said.
After Bekah’s friend returned from a brief stint abroad, the two tried to repair the friendship, but the few attempts at bridging their divide felt forced.
“I ended up blocking her on social media,” Bekah said. “I didn't want to give myself the opportunity to sort of 'binge' on her social media posts and criticize her actions because I was sad (or) upset with her.
"Lurking on her profiles felt very unhealthy and made my stomach churn because I knew she still harbored a lot of resentment towards me, and it felt very masochistic to still have access to her curated life.”
Similar feelings bubbled up for Aubrey, 24, after the dissolution of her friendship with a college roommate.
“Before we stopped being friends she definitely liked to post things about our friendship and made it seem way better than it was," Aubrey said. "After our friendship ended it was incredibly toxic for me specifically, because it still allowed me to see what she was up to…
"I'm not proud of how I allowed her to make me feel, but it's the truth. I finally unfollowed her and not seeing her posts and having the ability to 'creep' on her has helped a ton.”
How to deal
Before the advent of social media, friendships were perhaps just as likely to end in fiery feuds, or simply run their course and peter out over time. But now? Platforms like Facebook maintain threads of those fractured friendships that can lay dormant until a divisive topic or upsetting photo causes a blowup.
Steve Bisson is an expert on substance use and other addictive behavior at Talkspace, an online and mobile therapy service, who has worked with clients grappling with toxic friendships turned sour over social media.
“I think social media has broken down barriers in some negative ways,” Bisson said in an email. “(I have a client whose) experience was that, because of her posts, some ‘friends’ felt they could say things to her that they would never say face to face. The language was very offensive and very direct, to the point she was crying at night and felt that she could not face the ‘real world.’ It also caused her to go to anger, which led to more blunt, sometimes inappropriate posts.”
So what can we do in order to prevent these types of wounds from getting infected in the first place? Bisson has some tips:
1. Wouldn't say it to your ex-friend's face? Then don't say it over social media. “It only causes more tension and anger from everyone involved and leads to more inappropriate statements, statements you would never dare to say to someone if they were sitting across you.”
2. If you must communicate via social media, send a direct, private message rather than a public one. "When you feel the tension building or you feel someone is going over the social boundary line with you or with a post in general, write to them directly. Most platforms on social media allow that. If you... don't want to do that, pick up a phone and talk.”
3. Maintain your perspective. Not everyone is going to agree with you on everything. Sometimes, agreeing to disagree, especially with someone who is no longer in your life, can be the healthiest option. Know when to walk away from a situation—or unfollow or unfriend—rather than letting a big blowup ruin your day.
*Name has been changed for confidentiality.