By Karima Wood- A Harvard study concluded that having solid friendships in our life even helps promote brain health. Friends helps us deal with stress, make better lifestyle choices that keep us strong, and allow us to rebound from health issues and disease more quickly. Friendship is equally important to our mental health. How we relate to each other has undergone a marked change over the last two decades. In the pursuit of individualisation, we’ve moved away from traditions that have underpinned the way we had lived for generations. Instead, we have embraced a lifestyle that is defined by a greater personal freedom than ever before. This however comes at a cost. With much of our social interaction taking place online, negotiating relationships and our place within our preferred social circles requires a new skill set. A personal network of social relations no longer comes from close-knit community and family living, instead our relationships depend upon our ability to define and maintain our identity to the outside world. We have long recognised the importance of using social and business networking tools, but have the tools and the skills needed to negotiate them started to affect how we build key personal relationships also?
Let’s start with some facts about friendship: the average number of friends that one may have is 3.5; 42% of your friends live within a radius of three kilometers of your home and 15% of people say they have no friends. There are similarities among your friends, on average half of one’s friends have the similar education level and three quarters of them are of the same sex; (NB: Facebook friends were not included in these studies). Friends are important; you discuss the most personal things about yourself and life with them. They are also self-acquired, i.e. unlike your family or neighbours, you have chosen them. Your friends form part of your very identity. So what skills do we need to make these important relationships work? In order to have friends, we must be a friend to others. We must be able to communicate who we are and calculate the impact of our own behaviour; be able to take the initiative while having enough confidence to establish boundaries. Empathy is at the heart of things but still, reciprocity, value and trust can be created by honing our communication skills. Of course nowadays there is also the opportunity to further develop and use these skills online. The bonus of this is that by connecting important life skills to ones more usually associated with good business practice on and offline, it is possible to really enhance a professional reputation.
About 2000 years ago, people often gathered together, possibly around a campfire, they became friends (or not!) and during these sessions, stories and rituals were shared with the rest of the group. They also shared knowledge and experiences with each other. According to June Cohen (Executive Producer of TED Media for the TED Conference, 2011) this was the ‘media’ in this era, the ‘social media’. “Media is that which takes place between people, everyone does eventually join in.” June was responsible for bringing the TED Conference online and growing its audience from 1,000 attendees to 150 million viewers worldwide. In 2006, she launched the online video series TEDTalks. TEDTalks is a positive phenomenon of our digital world.
But, there is of course a downside also. For our latest crop of teens, popularity is no longer defined by the life status of a Tamagotchi or how good you are at sports. Instead often individual status is dependent on how many ‘friends’ are shown on the latest social media platforms (which of course are also ever-changing). For this generation of Millennials the feeling of ‘not participating in ‘ can be perceived as ‘not belonging’. This can of course lead to the pressure of having to do something – anything – to be noticed or be part of something. At its worst anorexia websites and social media groups, or suicide forums can catch hold of young people who just want to feel part of something. However, luckily these types of social networks are the complete extreme; most of the time the networks we are able to access through the internet have positive outcomes.
Networking is one of the most important things you must master to be successful and the digital world offers connections like never before. In his book “Network YourWay to Success” Charles D.A. Ruffolo says we human are natural networkers – starting from early childhood. So how does this work in real life and indeed in our 21st century environment? Ruffolo suggests that identifying mutual interests with people with whom you have a direct or indirect relationship is the key. It’s all about give and take around a common denominator. It is obviously great to work this all out in person – but using the internet and the accompanying social media platforms as your source can drive opportunity like never before.
Facebook (FB) is by far the most popular social network in Arab countries surveyed, with 94 percent of social network users active on the network. More than half of social network users in the sample are active on Twitter, 46 percent employ Google+, and around one in seven using Instagram. Just 6 percent of social networkers use LinkedIn- intuitive perhaps, given that professional introductions are still often fuelled by tea and handshakes in Arab countries.
In Qatar and UAE, FB users constitute more than half the population. Iraq, Syria and Libya have high growth rates. The percentage of female FB users dropped slightly from 33.4 to 31.7 %, while the users over age of 30 slightly rose, mayor growth percentages in the six Gulf-states and Lebanon. 
It has been said that if you do not have a groups of friends with whom you can share your success, joys and sorrows, you are missing a very big and important facet in your life. The skills we need to create and maintain relationships, be they personal or business ones, haven’t actually really changed. It’s just that by getting them onto digital platforms, we are able to connect with a much wider range of people and create connections that may not have been possible a couple of generations ago. It stands to reason; the more people you are able to reach with a concise message of who you are and what you are interested in, the more likely it is that many positive relationships will ensue.
Although the boundaries of social interaction have become blurry throughout the many levels or acquaintance, one thing is clear. Reaching out via whatsapp message is one thing, but knowing that the recipient of that message will always be there, to rush to your door and dry your tears, lay an arm on your shoulder or laugh hilariously if something positive happens in your life, is another. In other words we must never forget that it is the person at the other end who gives purpose and meaning to any digital interaction (not to mention the occasional necessary hanky or belly laugh!). I certainly know that without my ‘girlfriends’ I’d be an unhappier person. So, I’d like to end with a shout out to my Power friends – this piece is a tribute to you!
 (Source : http://mbrsg.ae/getattachment/e9ea2ac8-13dd-4cd7-9104-b8f1f405cab3/Citizen-Engagement-and-Public-Services-in-the-Arab.aspx)
*article was edited and updated from version June 2015