When friendship becomes an obligation

3. 4. 5. There’s something satisfying about watching that number tick up. 50. 51. 52. It becomes something with higher stakes. 170. 171. 172. Higher, higher — 398. 399.

And then. The unimaginable happens.

You’re sucker-punched in the gut — you feel utterly and devastatingly ashamed. You apologize profusely to your friend — you swear that you still love them, it was just an accident of the tech. Or, you go even further — you appeal, pleading to Snapchat officials to restore your image of fire.

Today, according to market research company eMarketer, 87 percent of American teenagers ages 12-17 use Snapchat at least once per month. Snapchat reports that 2.8 billion Snaps are created every day, with users averaging about 30 minutes spent daily on the app. The issue of stress surrounding streaks has gained so much ground that Psychology Today published a parenting article specifically focused on it. It’s too early for there to be empirical research on the effects of streaks on mental health, but I can tell you this: something bothers me when I read in the Wall Street Journal that after their breakup, an ex-couple keeps Snapping captionless pictures of the ceiling each morning. They could stand to lose each other, but not their streak. Something bothers me even when my friend tells my lunch table, almost proudly in her exasperation, that she had to give her username and password to another friend to keep her streaks up during her vacation.

Think about it. Would you feel complete despair if you were too busy to check Instagram one day? No. But you’ll do anything to keep your 300-day streak going. The reality is, Snapchat has figured out a brilliant strategy to put itself on the very top of your daily to-do list. The kind of slavery Snapchat imposes on you is so effective because it makes you your own overseer. The more time put into it, the more invested you become. By forcing yourself to use the app at least once per day, you’re strengthening their consumer base, increasing their advertising revenue. You’re literally donating 3.5 hours per week of your time to a for-profit company. Every streak that you’re working on is making money for an organization that has anything but your best interests in mind.

The strongest argument I’ve heard for investing wholeheartedly in Snapstreaks came from a friend I met at a camp in Indiana. We’ll call him John. John said that he keeps streaks because Snapchat acts as a tool and reminder to keep in contact with people he’d otherwise have stopped contacting long ago. Whether they were friends he met at a summer camp or people he simply doesn’t see anymore, streaks hold him accountable to communication. I’ve heard similar stories: “Snapchat is a convenient way to keep up with my friends, and streaks are just a little game I play.” But what do we lose in the game? When a relationship becomes purely an obligation — when the intent becomes to increase a number rather than to communicate for the development of a friendship — the relationship becomes unhealthy and strained. It may be time to face reality: there is little to no value gained in daily Snapping a black screen with “streaks” printed across the middle. If a relationship does not exist outside of Snaps, even personal, thoughtful ones, perhaps it’s time to let go. A true, mutually edifying relationship will survive outside the streak.

John and I Snap each other a couple times a month, and we have occasional but meaningful text conversations. I, along with a growing number of my friends, refuse to keep streaks. Because ultimately, a streak becomes only a numerical mark of friendship. When intelligence is reduced to a number grade, there are problems; when friendship is reduced to a number, there are problems; when complicated things are reduced to numbers in general, something vital is lost.

The best solution would be for Snapchat to remove its streak function altogether. But since streaks are such an effective money-making tool for them, that isn’t going to happen soon. Meanwhile, be mindful of your Snapchat use. Take a break from it if you need to: spend the 3.5 hours a week actually hanging out with your friends. Don’t keep streaks. Keep your sanity.