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The Science of Online Friendship

Making friends in the real world in real-time is something that most of us learn very early in life, and was the basis for the Mechanics of Friendship paper (Brooks, 2012b).  We have millennia of opinions, and decades of empirical research, about face-to-face friendship.  In the last decade, however, we have just begun to understand our virtual friends—how we make and keep friends online, how we interact with them, and the benefits of an increased social network.  While early research on social network sites (SNSs) suggested that we may more-regularly interact with existing, offline friends via SNSs (Ellison, Steinfeld, & Lampe, 2007), creating new connections online or solidifying tentative connections made offline, thereby increasing a person’s bonding and bridging social capital, is also important.  Understanding the importance of social capital, or the resources a person can rely on for personal and social support, offers insights into the importance of social contact to maintain social ties.  Higher levels of social capital have been linked to many benefits such as greater commitment to community and psychological well-being (Ellison et al., 2007).

Research related to the impact, effects, and benefits of making and maintaining friends via online social media, what we refer to as the Science of Online Friendship, in many ways, challenges three common cultural internet memes which have sprung up in the past several years, each of which are explored below.

Internet Meme #1
It Is Hard to Make Friends These Days, We Are Socially Isolated and Lonely

Major online media outlets, including the New York Times and the Huffington Post, consistently run opinion pieces and soft news features about the challenges faced by early to mid-life adults of making friendships with all of the pressures of modern life.  In his piece, “Friends of a Certain Age” New York Times columnist Alex Williams (2012), cites lack of time as well as increased discernment about including new people in his life as factors in, what he perceives, as difficulty in making and thus maintaining new friendships after age 30.  He put it bluntly with regard to making new friends: “life gets in the way” (para. 4).  But this argument may be too simplistic.  As self-proclaimed “friendship strategist” Shasta Nelson (2011) argues, friendships take work.  Like much of the research on friendship (see Brooks 2012a; Brooks 2012b), Nelson reiterates that there are two elements crucial to friendship: chemistry and…proximity.  She notes that even though we may have an instant click with someone and strike up a friendship (the chemistry aspect of the equation), as adults, it is crucial to make time for each other to solidify the friendship bond (the proximity element).  While physical proximity is not always possible, the real key here is to keep in touch—to reach out and connect with the ones we consider friends.

While making time for friends may be an ongoing challenge with the multiple obligations for many people—work, family, financial strain, or physical distance from loved ones—new sites are springing up that are geared toward non-romantic friend formation.  About.com even has a guide page to making friends online (Burbach, n.d.) that highlights the new ways that individuals are making friends online.  These sites are useful in aiding friend formation for people in a variety of social situations: relocation to a new region due to work, a recent divorce or break-up, or, the desire to connect with like-minded people or new people who may share an interest or hobby.

As noted above, and confirmed in a study conducted by researchers at the Pew Internet and American Life Project (Hampton, Sessions, Her, & Rainie, 2009), SNSs are excellent tools for making as well as maintaining social capital (Ellison et al., 2007).  In fact, the Pew study, which surveyed more than 2,000 participants, indicated that users of SNSs maintain excellent social connections both long-distance, but also with members of their local communities.  The study finds that Internet users maintain local contacts via Internet use in an equal manner to maintenance of long-distance connections.  Additionally, users of social media are exposed to more diverse perspectives and tend to have more diverse social connections.  As the lead author of the Pew study, Keith Hampton (Pew Internet and American Life Project, n.d.), noted, “People’s social worlds are enhanced by new communication technologies. It is a mistake to believe that internet use and mobile phones plunge people into a spiral of isolation.”

In some instances, like, as Ellison and her co-researchers (2007) discovered in early SNS research, online connection is a way to ameliorate the loneliness that can come from something like relocating to another place for college.  These researchers explored the ways that students using an early version of Facebook both made and maintained contacts via the SNS.  One interesting thing that they found was that many recently relocated students in the study used the SNS to maintain contact with high school friends.  Thus, the SNS became a tool to cope with “friendsickness” (Paul & Brier, 2001).

Wang and Wellman (2010), researchers at the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School, point out that the social isolation meme is actually not new.  These researchers note that the rise of each successive new technology (i.e., radio, the telephone, and television over the course of the last century) has brought about similar concerns that individuals drift away from the civic and social life around them as they become enthralled with new technologies.  In fact, like many bloggers and online media columnists, they have cited the now-famous 2000 book by Robert Putman, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and revival of American Community, as a central evidential anchor upon which the social isolation meme rests and is perpetuated.   Putnam’s premise is that Americans have seen a precipitous decline in their social capital over the past several decades.  However, The Pew study noted above as well as the study noted directly below, refute this social isolation meme with compelling evidence.

Wang and Wellman (2010) published evidence on the ongoing strength of social connectivity as a partial report of results from a longitudinal study, “Surveying the Digital Future,” ongoing since 2002.  Each year, members of the Center for the Digital Future survey Internet users and non-users in 2,000 households in the United States.  The Center issues an annual report of their findings (Center for the Digital Future, 2011).  Wang and Wellman (2010) have used the Center’s data to explore social connectivity (an indicator of social capital) through the comparison of numbers of friends and Internet usage. The data sets analyzed in this study compared social networks from 2002 and 2007. What they found is that the majority of individuals in the United States, both users and non-users of the Internet report having healthy numbers of friends and that there is little variability in total numbers of friends across all types of participants (Internet nonusers, light users, moderate users, and heavy users).  But they did discover some interesting information about Internet users: one-fifth of all Internet users report having some friends that are virtual-only.  Additionally, according to Wang and Wellman (2010), “when people do have virtual friends, they tend to have quite a few” (p. 1157), with an average of 24.8 such friends among heavy Internet users.  In fact, according to Wang and Wellman, heavy Internet users actually have the largest number of offline friends when compared to moderate, light, and nonusers (with nonusers reporting the smallest average number of friends). What the data revealed was that the average number of offline friends among heavy Internet users actually rose the most of all groups in the five year span, up 38%.  This research calls into question the persistent supposition that internet use is linked to friendlessness and social isolation.

Internet Meme #2
Social Networking Sites Make Us Anxious and Depressed

Media outlets have reported on a condition becoming commonly known as “Facebook Depression” (Tanner, 2011) or “Facebook Envy” (Sachs, 2012).  These articles warn that social comparison, or an adolescent’s habit of comparing their own successes and failures against the experiences of their peers, along with times when it may seem that others are doing well while a teen is having a low time or a bad day, may lead to depression.  But these online and television sources seem to have over-interpreted a report on children’s use of social media issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) (O’Keefe & Clarke-Pearson, 2011).  The study was intended to serve as a guide for parents on healthy use of online media for children and adolescents.  What many media outlets overlooked is that the report included, as the lead of the article, the benefits of online life for young people: practice in socialization, opportunities to make new friends, and exploring new ideas.  Instead, coverage of this article created media hype that led to a persistent internet meme that social media causes depression.  What the AAP report really offered was a list of the potential risks of online socialization including social comparison, cyber bullying, and sexting, and offered parents tips to recognize signs of risky behavior and helpful guidelines for preventative measures if children are at risk.

Some recent studies have published findings suggesting a correlation between transient emotional states such as jealousy (Muise, A., Christofides, E., & Desmarais S., 2009) and the use of social networking sites, or dissatisfaction of body image in adolescent girls who use SNSs (Slater, n.d.).  This body of research highlights some areas of potential concern—especially for teens who are already at risk offline—however, a recent study from University of Wisconsin researchers Lauren Jelenchick and Megan Moreno (2012) argue for a more measured take on the internet use/depression meme.  Their recent study measured rates of clinical depression rather than altered mood or temporary emotional states (which are often core measures in studies suggesting the negative impact of social networking).  Using real-time data collected via text messaging to all participants over the course of 2011, the researchers captured data on how long individuals were online and what activities they participated in while connected.   The participants were on SNSs over half of the amount of time that they were online, which for the total amount of time online ranged from under 30 minutes (53%) to between 30 minutes and 2 hours (39%) for the majority of participants in the study.  During text sessions with participants, the researchers used questionnaires to measure depression as part of the data collection process.  The results showed no significant associations between internet use and clinical depression (Jelenchick, et al, 2012). Additionally, findings of the study suggest that using only a measure of length of time online may not be sufficient to fully understand why some individuals may thrive while others experience suffering.  Rather, specific online activities may need to be studied in order to gain a better picture of how individuals are making and maintaining their social capital.   The authors further suggest that internet use and participation in SNSs be evaluated in the overall context of a person’s life.  If a person’s overall function and behavior is good, then, most likely, they are engaging in overall positive interactions online.

The internet use/depression meme is also being debunked at the other end of the development spectrum: among older, retired adults. Recent research notes that older adults who remain connected via SNSs are between 20-28% less likely to develop depression (Cotton, Ford, Ford, & Hale, 2012).  With over 57% of adults between the ages of 50-64 online, social connectivity via SNSs may help older adults maintain the high levels of social capital that they enjoyed throughout adulthood.  In the past 7 years, internet used among this demographic has grown by 38% suggesting that more and more older individuals are reaching out via a SNS (Brenner, 2012).

Researchers are still in the early days of creating a body of evidence that describes in complete detail the ways in which SNSs impact our moods and emotion.  But, according to recent research on two populations who are often studied as important barometers of social life due to health and care concerns for the young as well as the aging, we may need to view SNSs as part of the larger social fabric that is, in general, affording the majority of individuals using these technologies the ability to maintain social capital, which is, as noted elsewhere above, a measure correlated with well-being.

Internet Meme (Cultural Myth) #3
We Waste Time Online That We Could Spend With “Real People”

A very recent internet meme is cropping up that expresses, with humor, a persisting belief about the use of technology: that it is a waste of time.  Variations on the meme have been springing up on SNSs and meme generator sites.  One version poses the question what would be the most difficult thing to express to a person who has traveled in time from the 1950s to today.  The answer goes something like: I have a device that I keep in my pocket.  It gives me instant access to all of human knowledge.  I use it to look at pictures of cats and argue with strangers.  Indeed, it is true that looking at pictures is a major activity for SNS users, but not all of those photos are of cats, as the rising internet meme would suggest.  According to Harvard Business School professor Mikolaj Jan Psikorski, “Seventy percent of all [SNS] actions are related to viewing pictures or viewing other people’s profiles” (Silverthorne, 2009, para. 8).  Piskorski further suggests that motivations for the heavy use of photos on SNSs may be related to showing others that an individual is succeeding in life or enjoying life without having to state this outright, or, on the flipside, the voyeuristic ability to look more deeply into the lives of others without having to ask outright for information in in-person interactions (Silverthorne, 2009).

Over half (64%) of all internet users visit SNS and video sharing sites to relax or fill time, and beyond photo sharing (Center for the Digital Future, 2011), SNSs are used for a variety of personal reasons.  According to research from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, two-thirds of internet users use social media to stay in touch with current friends as well as family members (Smith, 2011).   To a lesser, but not insignificant extent, users of SNSs are also interested in reconnecting with individuals with whom they have lost contact, connecting over a shared hobby or interest, or making new friends.

Additionally, research from both the Pew Internet and American Life Project and the 2011 annual report from the Center for the Digital Future demonstrated that civic and political engagement are significant activities for many accessing social community online.  Seventy-nine percent of individuals participating in an online community participate in social causes that they discovered online and thirty-six percent of SNS users have increased participation in non-profit organizations via internet use (Center for the Digital Future, 2011, p. 10).  Similarly, researchers at the Pew Internet and American Life Project found in a 2012 survey that 66% of SNS users (or 39% of the overall American population) have used social media for political or civic purposes, including “liking” a post or perspective from someone or an organization who shares similar views and values, to encourage others to vote, or to post their own views and perspectives directly (Rainie, Smith, Schlozman, Brady, & Verba, 2012).  So, it may seem that for an increasingly large percentage of those online, after chuckling at the most recent image of a kitten caught in an awkward situation, SNS users may be reaching out to a long-lost friend, private messaging a pal, making plans for the weekend, or, even championing a favorite cause.

The Science of Friendship Online

Social networking creates the opportunity to learn something new every day, connect with like-minded people, and expand one’s potential for self-development as well as potential work opportunities never before imagined.  With all of these opportunities, one reality is certain: we are in the dawning age of research on social networking and media.  Google Scholar, which filters results to only include academic journals and books, lists 86,000 results for the phrase research in social media for the year 2012 alone.  With the incredible volume of research and scholarship being produced on a monthly basis related to the impact, effects, and benefits of the virtual lives in our daily lives, a curious and measured approach to interpretation of the current research can offer interesting insights into the benefits that often do not garner as much attention as the pitfalls.  From the research explored here, one basic interpretation is that what we see and know in the “real world” may be similar in measure to the general public’s online behaviors.  In other words, we may not be all that different with regard to behavior and feelings in our online lives.  But one interesting benefit is apparent: we are offered a much wider range of people to make friends with online if we take the friend-making advice of the experts: make yourself available, be curious about the lives of others, share your interests with others, and respond (when it feels right) to conversations initiated by others who share your interests.

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