How Culture and Generational Shifts Are Shaping Friendship

This Is The Age Most People Meet Their Besties

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We’ve heard it over and over… “Back in our day we played outside with our friends! We looked people in the eye! We didn’t talk to each other on a screen!” Yeah, yeah, Grandpa. WE KNOW. But you know what? As annoying as those “When we were kids” lectures are, the older generation has a point. It is a little sad to see a bunch of kids at a playground or festival or even in a neighbor’s backyard staring at their phones and not at the world around them. However, there’s good news to share. A study conducted by Snap, Inc. and Protein Agency found that—as it turns out—today’s kids are desiring more interpersonal connections after all.

The Friendship Report involved 10,000 people from all over the world between the ages of 13 and 75. Participants were from Australia, France, Germany, India, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the UK, and the US. They were also broken down into the four main generational groups: Gen Z: Born 1996-2006 (aged 13-23), Millennials: Born 1979–1995 (aged 24-39), Gen X: Born 1965–1979 (aged 40-54), and Boomers: Born 1944–1964 (55-75).

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What questions were they asked? Well, mostly, they were interviewed about friendship. “How many friends do you have?” “How and where did you meet them?” and “What do you talk about with your friends?” were among the topics addressed.

Topics such as “love at first sight”—friendship style—were included. (Gen Z is the most likely to fall fast for a friend. Nearly one-fifth said they only needed a month to decide if someone was their best friend.) Age was mentioned in the study too, with 21 being the average age people meet their besties. And, most important sought-after qualities in a BFF? Honesty and authenticity came out on top.

Not surprisingly, the baby boomer generation is least likely to share personal info like love life, mental health, and money issues with friends online. On the other end of the spectrum, guess which group is most likely to share personal info and thrive on a vast online friendship circle? If you guessed Millennials, you’re right.

Gen Z however? The only generation in this group that has had social media their entire lives? Not so much.

This, therapist and friendship researcher Miriam Kirmayer says, makes sense if you look at the difference between platforms like Snapchat (which is what the youngest group uses most) versus more public social media like Facebook. Snapchat “is much less about the number of followers we have and, instead, is often a tool for communication between close friends,” Kirmayer (an expert who participated in the Snap study) tells Scary Mommy. 

Also, “Snapchat, which is the preferred platform for many Gen Z, doesn’t have these metrics that quantify our friendships—there are no public follower counts, likes, or comments,” Kirmayer adds.

So has Gen Z gravitated toward Snapchat because they crave personal connections more than a high number of followers? Or are they naturally falling into this pattern because Snapchat is newer and cooler than Facebook? We may never know, but one thing is clear: Gen Z is shifting away from their Millennial older brothers and sisters in the types of “friendships” they crave. And frankly, as a mom to the generation that comes after Gen Z, this gives me hope.

Because the truth is, technology, phones, and social media aren’t going anywhere. If anything, society is evolving to incorporate them more and more into our lives. But what if younger generations’ reliance on these forms of communication is causing loneliness, isolation, and a stunted ability to interact with other humans face to face? Maybe Gen Z’s desire to have real friendships instead of a million social media followers means we are swinging back in the right direction.

It looks like the youngest of today’s tech-savvy citizens are gravitating toward a platform that is more a source of communication, rather than a “look at how awesome my vacation was!” feed. And frankly, that sounds so much healthier.

And that’s not to say there isn’t value in more public social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook. (As someone born smack-dab between Gen X and the Millennial boom, they are certainly my lifeline.) I do love having a central place to share pics of my kids, an occasional update on our lives with friends and family, and catch up on college friends getting married, having babies, and changing careers. But yeah, placing our value on our number of “followers” and “likes,” rather than the close personal relationships we have in life with people who truly know and love us, can absolutely be detrimental to our mental health and overall sense of worth.

So maybe Gen  Z has it figured out after all.

Lelia Milaya/Reshot

Interestingly, Snap’s study wasn’t just about generational differences. It also found that friendship varies from culture to culture too. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, people on average had 6.6 “best friends.” On the other end, the U.K. had the lowest in this category with only 2.6. (The U.S. was pretty low too, with a mere 3.1.) And how about values? Being “intelligent and cultured” is more valued by those in India, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, the report finds, whereas being “non-judgmental” matters more to those in Australia, Europe, and the US.

Also, with only 64 of the 10,000 participants identifying as non-binary, The Friendship Report also found interesting stats for men and women. And one such finding was that there is quite an overlap between genders with regards to friendship. “We tend to think of women’s friendships as being much more intimate than men’s,” Kirmayer explains, but there’s a shift happening here too. “We are seeing that men are becoming more aware of, and comfortable with, their need for social connection and intimacy within their friendships,” she says.

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HELL YES. (Claps hands enthusiastically.) Let’s let that tough “I can’t show emotion” bravado go already. You can be a strong man and still be emotionally dependent on good friends in your life. Isn’t it about time society as a whole accepted that fact?

So what’s the takeaway from all this? Well, most of it confirms something we already knew—real, meaningful friendships are essential to one’s well-being. “This study also highlights that our need for social connection is deeply personal,” Kirmayer tells Scary Mommy. “We all differ in terms of the number of friends we have or need and that is perfectly fine. What matters more than the number of friends we have is our subjective experience of feeling satisfied and supported.”

Quality over quantity. That’s the heart of it all. We can have a million social media followers and not one true friend who gets us and appreciates us. Or, we can have a few IG followers but feel surrounded by love and support and personal connection. I guess the decision is ours.