With loneliness at epidemic levels in the U.S., many people could use a few more friends to lean on. Survey data suggest that many U.S. adults want to make new friends—perhaps because strong relationships are one of the best predictors of happiness and well-being—but struggle to do so. About 8% of U.S. adults say they don’t have any close friends at all.

Enter the apps. Bumble for Friends, Hey! VINA, Wink, and plenty more promise to help people make friends online. Many work just like dating apps: you build a profile that includes photos and a bio, then swipe through other people’s profiles until you find someone who seems like a potential match. If you pick each other, you can start chatting.

Despite their similarities, friendship apps haven’t taken off in quite the way dating apps have. Online dating is now the most popular way for U.S. heterosexual couples to meet, yet just 8% of U.S. adults say they’ve met a close friend online. (Data from Bumble, however, suggest that the practice is significantly more common among Gen Z adults.)

Jeffrey Hall, director of the Relationships and Technology Lab at the University of Kansas, says there’s still a stigma around meeting friends online, just as there was with online dating in its earlier days. The common assumption is that “if you’re a normal person, you should have no trouble making friends,” Hall says. But in truth, “it’s hard to make friends.”

Friendship apps can help if you use them right. Here’s what experts say to do.

Think about your goals

Are you looking for a best friend? A workout buddy? A fellow parent to bond with during playdates? Get granular about what you want, and let that desire determine which app you use, suggests Miriam Kirmayer, a Montreal-based clinical psychologist who studies adult friendship.

Some platforms are geared toward specific groups of people—like Peanut for mothers and Amintro for adults 50 and older—while some sites, like Meetup, connect people through common interests. Using these specialized services (or at least being clear about what you’re looking for in your profile bio) may help you find friends who add to your social calendar in exactly the way you want, Kirmayer says.

Be yourself—and be specific

When you’re building your profile, it’s tempting to try to appeal to the masses. But Danielle Bayard Jackson, a friendship expert who works with Bumble for Friends, says that approach often backfires.

“I sometimes see people put, ‘I love brunch and travel and music,’ and I’m like, ‘Girl, who doesn’t?’” Jackson says. “Tell me your favorite album of all time, the meal you could eat every day, a crazy travel story. Those are the things that make you memorable and give us some clues as to your personality and history.” Being specific also increases your chances of connecting with the right people and gives potential friends better fodder for starting a conversation, she says.

Meet in person as soon as possible

Research suggests online-only friendships tend to be less meaningful than face-to-face relationships. So if you’re looking for a close bond, avoid getting stuck in the texting phase. “The only way you’re ever going to develop a strong relationship is risking the awkwardness of a first meeting,” Hall says.

And yes, the first hangout will probably be a little awkward. Culturally, we have clearer expectations for how romantic relationships start and progress than we do for platonic relationships, which can take many different forms. “As a consequence,” Hall says, “there is no script” for something like a friendship date.

To take some pressure off, Jackson recommends making your first meeting brief and activity-oriented—maybe meeting for coffee and browsing a bookstore for an hour, or checking out a museum exhibition together. “It feels less intense than sitting across from each other like an interview,” she says.

Find enjoyable ways to keep it going

It can be difficult to sustain momentum when you hit it off with someone new but aren’t quite at “friends” level yet. To power through, Jackson recommends chatting by direct message, text, or voice note between in-person hangouts to help things feel more natural when you do meet. Sending a link to an article or podcast is an easy way to keep the conversation evolving.

Kirmayer also recommends looking for activities that are naturally recurring, since it takes time and consistency to cement a bond. (Hall’s research suggests it takes around 50 hours together to go from acquaintances to friends.) That could mean inviting a new acquaintance to your book club, planning to hit the same workout class every week, or setting a standing date to debrief a TV show you both like.

Remember the friends you already have

In addition to dating-style apps that help make new friends, a variety of services promise to revive or strengthen existing bonds. Apps like Thoughtful and Garden, for example, prompt you to stay in touch with the people you love, while Marco Polo helps you easily swap video messages.

Hall says these apps could be great for people who want to stay in touch but simply need a nudge to do it. But they don’t necessarily help with mental barriers, like feeling needy or annoying by reaching out or not knowing what to say. These are common issues: psychological research suggests people often overestimate how much the content of their notes matters but underestimate how much people appreciate receiving them—and that many people don’t realize how much others enjoy talking to them at all.

It’s worth remembering that we are our own harshest critics, Kirmayer says. “The number-one wish that I hear in my work on friendship is that people wish their friends would be the ones to initiate more often,” she says. “It’s much more common to wish that our friends would reach out more often than to wish that our friends would stop.”

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