Cultivating True Friendship in the Age of Social Dilemma

By Ernest Chi-Hin Ng
Buddhistdoor Global | 2021-01-29 |
Still from the film <i>The Social Dilemma</i> (2020). From variety.comStill from the film The Social Dilemma (2020). From variety.com

Social media has drastically changed human interactions and behaviors over the last 10 years, going far beyond the original ideals of facilitating sharing and promoting openness and connections. Much of the debate today is around its impact on mental well-being, human relationships, public communications, politics, and so on. While social media does contribute to community-building and bringing people closer, there are also many controversies and dilemmas over the threats of manipulation and privacy invasion, and misinformation.

From the Buddhist perspective, there are a few intriguing questions relating to social media. For example, what would the Buddha do with social media? How do we use social media mindfully? What are the spiritual guidelines for building a social media platform that is beneficial to human well-being? At a fundamental level, this article looks into social media from the perpestive of the Buddhist teaching on friendship. Perhaps the wisdom of the Buddha from 2,500 years ago can still be insightful with regard to contemporary social media.

The first insight from the Buddhist teaching is the power of conceptual proliferation, which tells us that our views and identities are human mental constructs and labels. While social media allows us to add or delete “friends” as if strong relationships are developed or broken, we are in fact just saying “hi” or “bye” to new acquaintances. On a social media platform, we are offered many data points about someone we might barely know in person. We have never assessed our new acquaintances in person under different contexts—we don’t know their relationships with family, colleagues, or even pets! Our knowledge of someone through social media is so fragile and superficial, yet the “friendship” seems so vivid and powerful. Many of us are willing to share information about ourselves that we may not even share with our family. We may follow and learn many details about someone we barely speak to directly. In the past, our impressions of someone may last a long time and friendships may take years to build. Many of our best friends are people we met in school, probably because we have spent so much time with them and their families. 

As the philosopher and historian Yuval Noah Harari discussed in a recent podcast, humans are social animals, but we have a limited capacity to manage more than 150 social connections—the famous Dunbar number. It is also roughly the number of friends each individual would have had in a social network without heavy facilitation or manipulation by technology. Perhaps it also makes sense when we think of the typical class size in schools. Most primary and secondary schools have fewer than 30 students per class and fewer than 4–5 classes in each grade, i.e. no more than 150 students in each grade. Simply think of how many true friends we can identify at high school. Even at the university level, a large class is typically in the range of 150–200 students. A very large class may have up to 1,000 students, but that is also the size of the biggest auditorium for most universities. This reflects how humans naturally organize and manage in-person relationships. Any relationships beyond 150 are perhaps better considered as acquaintances whom we know but not well. For those key opinion leaders (KOLs) with a reach of tens of thousands or even millions of people, their “friends” are actually “fans” or “followers.” People may judge you over what you post but they do not really know you.

Unfortunately, this online conceptualization of friendship is not easily distinguishable from the in-person one. When teenagers grow up and open themselves to the online world, they are vulnerable to critical judgment, manipulation, and bullying by those who claim to be their friends. Even more demanding is for young people to protect themselves from misinformation and fake identities. Another huge burden for social media is also its fast and efficient outreach with permanent records. For example, new recruits in the financial industry should be trained not to do anything stupid that would make headlines in the Wall Street Journal. It is terrifying to realize that we now have access to the Wall Street Journal equivalent at our fingertips just a post button away. Our stories could go viral, reaching millions of people within minutes. The burden of choosing the right friends and sharing the right content all the time is unbearable for adults, not to mention for teenagers.

The Buddha taught the significance of friends in the spiritual journey. He corrected Venerable Ānanda’s understanding and declared that “good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship” is not only half of the spiritual life, but the entire spiritual life. Spiritual friendship contributes to the cultivation of the Noble Eightfold Path and true liberation (CDB SN 45.2). The Buddha distinguishes good friendship from evil not by age or by zip code. Instead, good friends are those “of mature virtue, accomplished in faith, moral discipline, generosity, and wisdom.” Whomever has good friends can accordingly converse with them and engage in meaningful discussions, thereby learning from their good moral accomplishments and aspiring to achieve these moral qualities. (NDB AN 8.54) 

Bhikkhu Bodhi (2005) argues that the practice of the Dhamma has a human and a social dimension through spiritual friends who support, protect, and guide each other along a shared spiritual path. In the Sigālaka Sutta (LDB DN 31), the Buddha advises that one should minister their friends and companions carefully “by gifts, by kindly words, by looking after their welfare, by treating them like himself, and by keeping his word.” In return, these friends and companions should reciprocate the friendship “by looking after him when he is inattentive, by looking after his property when he is inattentive, by being a refuge when he is afraid, by not deserting him when he is in trouble, and by showing concern for his children.”

Another conceptualization often discussed in the Buddhist teachings is that of desire and hatred. A pivotal change in social media was the introduction of emotional buttons such as “like” in 2009 and “angry” in 2016. These emotion buttons allow users to express feelings and views, but the tail also wags the dog, causing a constant pursuit of likes and extreme reactions. The chase for clicks, responses, and conversions stirs emotions from users even when they may not have such strong views or desires to begin with. Social media advocates the proliferation of opinions, feelings, and responses—no reaction seems to be the worst nightmare in social media.

Often times we consider those who like, support, or share our shared views as friends, while those who object or disagree with us as our foes. The Buddha (LDB DN31) explains four types of people who should be considered loyal friend:

1) A helper;
2) One who is the same in happy and unhappy times;
3) One who points out what is good for you;
4) One who is sympathetic.

Helper friends are always on our side, looking after us and our possessions, even when we are inattentive, and serving as a refuge, offering twice what we ask for even in business. Those who are the same in good and bad times tell you their secrets, protect your secrets, give you hope in misfortune, and may even offer their lives for you. Friends who point out what is good serve as a moral compass, keeping you from doing wrong, supporting you in doing good, offering guidance when you are lost, and directing you on the path to heaven. Finally, friends who are sympathetic feel bad at your misfortune, feel happy for your good fortune, defend you when others speak ill of you, and commend those who speak in favor of you.

The Buddha warns us of people who can be seen as “foes in friendly guise” (LDB DN 31):

1) The taker;
2) The great talker;
3) The flatterer;
4) The spendthrift.

Takers are those who take everything, want a lot for very little, must do what they do out of fear, and seek their own ends. Great talkers talk of favors they have given you in the past and in the future, with empty phrases of goodwill, and always give excuses when failing to do what needs to be done. The flatterers condole bad actions but criticize good ones. They also have split tongues, offering praise in front of you but speaking ill of you behind your back. The spendthrifts are only friends when you are drinking, idling in the streets at the wrong time, or at frequent fairs and parties, and when you are addicted to gambling.

These teachings from the Buddha set quite high standards for spiritual friends. He invites us to reflect deeply on whether we have spent enough time and effort cultivating true friendship, which could be genuinely beneficial and nourishing to our lives and spiritual journeys, or are we spending too much screen time with foes in friendly guise?


Bodhi, Bhikkhu (trans.). 2000. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. CDB SN. Somerville: Wisdom Publications.

Bodhi, Bhikkhu (ed.). 2005. In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pāli Canon. Somerville: Wisdom Publications.

Bodhi, Bhikkhu (trans.). 2012. The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Aṅguttara Nikāya NDB AN. Somerville: Wisdom Publications.

Walsh, Maurice (trans.). 1986. The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya. LBD DN. Somerville: Wisdom Publications.

See more

Dunbar's number: Why we can only maintain 150 relationships (BBC News)
Are The Kids Alright? (Humanetech)
Two Million Years in Two Hours: A Conversation with Yuval Noah Harari (Humanetech)

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Would the Buddha Be on Facebook?
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