Are Social Networks Positively or Negatively Impacting Our Real Life Friendships?

You have hundreds of friends of Facebook, but how many real life friends do you have? According to a new study, not as many as your parents did.

You have hundreds of friends of Facebook, but how many real life friends do you have? According to a new study, not as many as your parents did.

You have 130 friends on Facebook, 251 followers on Twitter, and dozens of subscribers to your YouTube channel. You’ve got lots of friends, right? According to a new study from the Time-sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences (TESS) programme, not so much.

According to their website the TESS “offers researchers the opportunity to capture the internal validity of experiments while also realizing the benefits of working with a large, diverse population of research participants. Investigators submit proposals for experiments, and TESS fields successful proposals for free on a representative sample of adults in the United States using a highly-respected Internet survey platform.” In this case, the survey was conducted by  Cornell University sociologist Matthew Brashears. He surveyed 2000 American adults ages 18 and older. According to Brashears most people average two “true” friends.

To reach this conclusion, he asked participants to list the names of the people they had “discussed important matters” with in the six months prior to taking the survey. 48 % of respondents listed one name, 18 % listed two names, and approximately 29% listed more than two names. And, yes, some people listed no names at all. 4% of respondents didn’t list any names. On average, this meant that people reported having 2.03 confidantes.

Two friends does seem kind of low, but is this standard or is the number dropping? According to previous research, 25 years ago, people claimed to have at least three close friends. If the average Facebook user has 130 friends, then how is it possible that only two of those people are “close friends”? And, what exactly does the decline in reported friends mean? According to Brashears, while the decline in reported number of close friendships “makes us potentially more vulnerable, we’re not as socially isolated as scholars had feared’.

Brashears is quick to point out that the decline isn’t necessarily a bad thing. He told LiveScience that: “’Rather than our networks getting smaller overall, what I think may be happening is we’re simply classifying a smaller proportion of our networks as suitable for important discussions.” He added: “This is reassuring in that it suggests that we’re not becoming less social.’

The study further corroborates this statement. According to the study, the number of people who reported having no confidantes or reported being socially isolated has not gone up in the past twenty five years. So, even though the number of friends is shrinking, social isolation isn’t. The study says, “modern discussion networks have decreased in size, which is consistent with other researchers’ findings, but that social isolation has not become more prevalent’.

So, what does this say about social media? Directly, nothing. Indirectly, it’s a reminder that our connections on social media aren’t necessarily strong real-life friend links. Further, while there is no evidence of such yet, it may be that social networking is actually helping us define the word “friend”. If Brashears is correct, and we are more careful with who we trust, it may be that social networks and Facebook in particular (Facebook did push along the trend of using “friend” as a verb) may be contributing to our understanding of friendship. So, whether you have hundreds of friends or only two, changes are your friendships are being influenced by social media.