When I ask girls what they value most in their all-important friendships, I often hear, “A real friend never judges me.”  But when I observe friendships in action, particularly among girls, I see something different:  I see the importance of mutual compliments as each reassures the other of her admiration, but I also see each carefully monitoring the other’s responses, all too aware of the possibility of disapproval. 

Friendship, particularly among girls, is supposed to be blame-free, and this ideal comes up against the fact that girls are, as all people are, judgmental creatures. We constantly assess other people and our interactions with them. We judge because we have evolved to do so; our brains are “domesticated”. To survive we need other people, and so we have developed sensitivity to others’ views, particularly the views of those who share our social world. This feature of human nature underpins parental influences, and it also explains why friends wield such power. We choose friends who fit comfortably with our sense of self, but we also shape ourselves to fit into groups – especially during the teen years.

So, when girls engage with friends in self-revelation – articulating deep feelings and disclosing innermost secrets – they hope to gain understanding and cement friendship, yet revealing who they are carries the risk of disapproval. 

At fifteen, Amy hopes for reassurance when she tells Josie about “stupid stuff, really private things”: that she had sex with a boy who is a “loser,” that her mother’s drinking is out of control, that she is worried about her sister. She craves “a really good long talk” because her friend “helps me see that with all this mess I’m really doing ok, and that means I’m a really strong person.” Amy says, “It’s so good to talk to Josie, and feel I’m not just yuck inside, and that I’m so much better than I seem.”

But a few months later, the friendship between Amy and Josie has soured. “Josie is spending far more time with Kirstie than with me. Then one girl made a joke about my mom and put her hand to her mouth, like someone guzzling from a bottle. I wanted to vomit. I knew Josie was the one who told what she promised she’d never tell. All that stuff about how I’m a really good person, really strong, was fake. The minute my back is turned I’m no longer the strong girl toughing it out, you know, getting respect. I’m the poor slut whose family is a mess, or the slut who’s messing up [her] family. Things are one thing when you tell it to a friend, but things are shit when your friend spreads it around behind your back.”  As girls explore and develop their own persona, their judgments change. This volatility is painful to the friend who becomes “unadmired” once her friend’s alliances shift.

Social media exacerbates the volatility and power of judgment. Every time they look on Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat—the three sites teens use most often (though this is always changing)—they confront what seem like perfect faces, perfect lives - perfection is linked not to reality but to highly selective user profiles. These impossible ideals make negative comparison inevitable.

 “I know these images are posed. I know they’re not real,” Josie tells me, “but I still look at them and wish I could be like that girl who gets all those ‘likes’. And it’s the worst thing, to get those snarly comments. It’s a real stomach kick when even one person puts you down.” It is all too easy for an ordinarily decent teen to “snarl” on social media. Person to person, facial expressions guide each step in a conversation. The interest expressed with a dilated pupil, the disapproving or sympathetic intake of breath, the gentle or embarrassed laughter that expresses ease or discomfort with our presence reveals a person’s subjective world, and our behaviour is informed by empathy.  This humanity can drain away when we are simply dealing with an image and a contrived “profile”.  

Social media, teenage girls tell me, makes them more “judgey”, and their own concern about how they are judged by others become an obsession. They crave that momentary dopamine jolt, or rush of pleasure, in gaining more “followers” or “friends” and more “likes”.  But they will always feel unsatisfied, because such approval is of such low quality.   Negative judgments, on the other hand, command their attention, and become, as Josie says, “a stomach kick”.  The pleasure of approval quickly evaporates; the pain of disapproval lingers and nags, like “a stone in one’s shoe.”

Understanding how day-to-day judgments shape our relationships is essential to understanding ourselves. These judgments are sometimes wrong, but there is ample opportunity to revise and reflect. The impact of social media on the lifelong human enterprise of improving our constantly running judgment meter is terrifying; for when judgments are corrupted by brevity, glamor, and pretense, then judgments are not simply wrong; they are worthless.  

Terri Apter’s book Passing Judgment: Praise and Blame in Everyday Life is published on 9 February by W.W. Norton