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Where Mean Girls Never Grow Up

Photograph by Getty Images

"Zero" was the most common response when Americans were asked how many confidants they had, according to data from the General Social Survey on social isolation. Moreover, those who said they have no close friends has about tripled in the past two decades.

How, in the age of social media, when everyone can virtually connect to anyone, can people feel so lonely? Even if you like spending time alone, you can still feel the sting of nonreciprocal friendship. Lazy friendship. Conditional friendship.

Enter Facebook, ironically a tool designed to draw people together. Facebook has been particularly destructive to female relationships. In a woman's edited version of herself, she often ends up highlighting her biggest insecurities. She shows us through photos or status updates the very opposite of her worst fears: being friendless, alone, broken, single, aging, unsuccessful. Things that are just natural in the course of life. Things that are OK to be, because we're human.

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You may see photos of your friends laughing and hugging in groups, practically shouting, "I've been included! What about you?" You may see them post photos of their kids' birthdays. Why wasn't my kid invited, you might ask. I thought we were friends.

Women have been like this for so long that all it does is push its way through another channel.

Oh sure, it may all be innocuous. We just want to celebrate her promotion. We don't mean anything by it. Why are you acting like it's personal? Why are you acting so insecure? Can you seriously not handle photos of your friends having a good time without you?

And of course, it may not be personal. It probably isn't personal. It probably isn't aimed at you or meant to hurt you. It isn't supposed to make you feel inferior or that your child has been shunned. But that is self-centered thinking. The kind of thinking that refuses to see life from another's shoes.

But isn't this what women have been doing for decades? Facebook just makes it easier. This is the way women bully—they feign innocuousness while twisting the knife.

They always have something they can fall back on: It's just good, harmless fun.

And someone to blame: What's wrong with you? You're too sensitive.

Their need to broadcast inclusion is greater than their desire to feel empathy. Their need to be validated as young and beautiful is greater than their wish to embrace who they already are. Their need to brag about their kids is greater than their interest in supporting yours. Yet they get their "likes." Social currency. Why? Because if you don't like it, you're the insecure one. You're not allowed to broadcast your hurt, your real feelings. But if Facebook is just fake personas interacting with other fake personas, what's the point, really?

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Isn't that one reason we try to keep our kids off social media? Particularly our girls who are in prime "mean girl" years. My daughter was sitting next to me when I felt the Facebook pang of exclusion. She said, "You mean that stuff never goes away? I thought adults didn't have this."

But it never does go away. Women have been like this for so long that all it does is push its way through another channel. Facebook just exacerbates it.

We know our power to love or hurt, build up or destroy.

I recently deactivated my personal Facebook account, though I kept my professional one. A great thing happened when I did. I hand-wrote three letters. I arranged a lunch. I visited. Some people checked in with me personally. Sometimes they were not who I expected. Others who I expected did not. But real friends find each other. Naturally. Organically.

Facebook had made me a lazy friend. How easy it is to hit "like" instead of actually talking with someone? How effortless it is to type "happy birthday" to someone you used to send cards to? How many times must I have disappointed someone in the very ways I'm talking about? How many little hurts have I inflicted to make myself feel better, to fulfill an obligation? We're all human, after all. We've all disappointed people. And some relationships do need to end. But I hope that if I have to hurt someone, I have the courage to do it in person.

Facebook has become a political and personal mess, where friends, family, co-workers, acquaintances and total strangers are all thrown together. Where unfriending someone might have repercussions on your job or family. We used to separate our social connections, because each group helped fulfill our different needs. Or we sensed that one group wouldn't mesh well with another, and we were probably right. But Facebook is like a big earthquake that dumps all of these boxes on the floor, their contents a jumbled mess. It doesn't seem healthy, somehow.

True relationships take effort, but the survey results on social isolation seem to suggest we're less willing to make that effort than we used to be.

Of course, we could just post whatever we want, damn the consequences. We say: "If she feels bad, that's her problem." But that is naive and short-sighted. It neglects the delicate and complex balance that our relationships require.

As women we should know this. This is the natural way we think: everything is connected to everything else. We know deep down that posting this will affect that. We know our power to love or hurt, build up or destroy.

I wish we women were better at truly supporting each other. I wish we selflessly cared about each other's successes and failures. I wish we took genuine interest in the growth of each other's children, our rocky paths as mothers, our struggles with marriage, our problems with finances, our feelings about aging and beauty and death. I wish we cared less about comparisons and more about friendship.

True relationships take effort, but the survey results on social isolation seem to suggest we're less willing to make that effort than we used to be. Facebook makes it too easy not to.

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And so there we stay, creating our personas, passive-aggressively revealing our insecurities, promoting ourselves and our children, nudging others to call us young, beautiful and perfect. We want to fill our empty holes so badly that we don't care about the hurts we cause. We don't care that it's all fake, because it looks and feels so real. We crave each others' friendship and support. But those things never came cheap, fast or easy, and they never will.

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