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do i owe my friends digital transparency?
mixed feelings is a weekly advice column. Every Wednesday, a different mental health expert, author, or journalist will respond to your problems and existential questions. If you like this sort of thing, why not subscribe?
hi mixed feelings,
My friend group is obsessed with sharing locations with each other. I feel weird about this for a lot of reasons but mainly I keep wondering if there’s something wrong with me that I don’t want to share my location with people I consider my closest friends?
My friends make fun of me and sometimes call me out for not sharing my location. I know a lot of people who do this and they love it but for me, I feel really uncomfortable sharing because sometimes to get out of plans I will lie about where I am…I know I should be better at communicating, but sometimes it’s just easier. I think what really bothers me about all this is that I don’t understand why I am so uncomfortable with [sharing my location]. I talk all the time with my friends about how I wish we all lived in the same building so we could have “Friends”-style relationships like on TV shows where we all hang out at each other’s apartments. I’m worried it’s hypocritical [that I don’t want] to share my location. Help! — PrivacyPlz, she/her
With social media and new technology released every day, it can be really difficult to carve out those precious moments where you’re digitally “unavailable”. Friends might text you hoping for an immediate response or (in your case) feel entitled to knowing where you are and what you’re doing all the time. But the bottom line is, none of these things are conducive to building healthy friendships that respect individual boundaries.
Part of my job is being “online”, so I’ve often struggled with the expectation to be available to everyone at all times. I’ve recently had to learn to communicate that though I may seem “online,” sometimes I’m not. I still struggle with the guilt of taking a day to text back or feel like I’m letting someone down if I can’t immediately pick up a FaceTime call. Opening up the conversation can be as simple as saying “I love you, but sometimes I don’t feel like talking so in those moments I’ll call you back when I can”. In your case, this could be “I love you, but I’m just not comfortable with anyone knowing where I am at all times.”
Social Media & Privacy
While sharing your location with friends when you’re traveling alone, walking home at night, or even going on a date with someone you met online can be a great safety measure (and something I do often), it should never be a friendship requirement. In fact, setting boundaries around social media, technology, and personal privacy is only going to become more important in the near future. Just because the technology exists, doesn’t mean we have to use it all the time (despite social media platforms making us feel that way).
With increased mass surveillance programs and VR on the horizon Stanford Psychiatry professor Dr. Elias Aboujaoude says our digital privacy (and frankly, overall privacy) is in jeopardy. “Privacy is a crucial psychological need that is now under attack, with serious negative consequences to the individual and society,” he says. “Crucial psychological functions are mediated by privacy, including the ability to bounce back from setbacks and the ability to turn a new page and have a fresh start.” In other words, we all need private moments as they allow us space to process and reflect on our thoughts. The guilt you’re feeling stems from a desire for privacy that is both innate and important to people and their development. So, you’re feeling uncomfortable about it because it is uncomfortable.
Dr. Aboujaoude says we should all hang onto “what little privacy we can still claim” and I tend to agree—location sharing is just location “surveillance" rebranded after all. As a general rule, if you feel uncomfortable with sharing something online, you don’t need to force yourself to oblige just because other people are doing it. Everyone interacts with technology in different ways and, hopefully, your friends would be open to having a larger conversation with you about online privacy, why it’s important to you, and potentially find some middle ground like sharing your location only when you feel unsafe.
Setting Boundaries in Friendships
This question is about privacy but it’s also about communicating boundaries within friendships—which we all struggle with to some degree. If your friends make fun of you for expressing your needs or you feel uncomfortable being honest with them, your friendship with this group might need some work. While many people lie to get out of plans here and there, we all deserve to build the type of healthy friendships where we can say: “I’m feeling a bit off tonight and just can’t bring myself to leave the house.”
Mental Health Counselor Felicia Harper says that having these open conversations within friendships has become more important in recent years because people are starting to value their friendships on the same par as romantic relationships (which I love to see). “In romantic relationships, we’re used to setting boundaries but our friendships need them too,” she says. Imagine if your friend’s romantic partner asked to know where they are at all times? That might make them feel uncomfortable and perhaps be deemed codependent. The same rules apply in your scenario.
When it comes to opening up the dialogue around boundaries with friends, Harper recommends having these conversations one-on-one, to avoid the group mentality and ensure each friend can hear your thoughts and concerns. “Ultimately, it all boils down to knowing how to meet and advocate for your needs in friendships, and it seems like you’re having difficulty being honest with your friends about your needs,” she says. “If you continue to lie to your friends you might eventually get caught in a lie and that will impact the friendship, so recognize that you deserve time for yourself and you have the right to that.”
You should never have to share your location with anyone unless you feel open to it. “If that’s a mandate in a friendship, there’s something wrong with the friendship,” she says. “You can still be close to someone and maintain healthy parameters.” With that in mind, I know you dream of fostering friendships as you’ve seen on TV. That closeness is entirely possible without being constantly available. After all, the portrayal of friendships on many TV shows lacks boundaries or nuance. “In ‘Friends’, the characters are constantly bombarding someone,” says Harper.
TV is not real life, friendships are going to and should look different in reality. Because of this, Harper recommends that we enjoy these shows without holding our relationships to a standard that doesn’t exist. The most important part of friendships will always be investing quality time in people and having shared experiences. What that friendship looks like on your phone after leaving the hang-out is entirely up to you. As algorithms change and update, our friendships will also have to, and the only way to build a foundation solid enough to withstand the adjustments (and alleviate the guilt you’re carrying) is open communication and boundary setting. After all, we should all always be far less concerned about sharing our location with our friends than we are sharing our feelings.
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