Facebook, Twitter, Instagram: we are more connected than ever. Yet, one quarter of Canadians describe themselves as lonely. Loneliness is not just a social crisis – it’s linked to a suite of mental and public health issues too; depression, anxiety, depressed immunity, and even suicide. How is this pervasive loneliness possible if we are more connected than ever before?
A complex and healthy debate exists on whether social media improves or reduces well being in mental health. Some research has shown that people feel lonelier after using social media platforms such as Facebook or Instagram. Facebook use has also been linked to decreased happiness and life satisfaction with increased usage. Other research has found that the more time spent on social media sites, the more individuals perceive themselves to be isolated. On the flip side, other studies have shown that social media use can boost feelings of social connection, with researchers arguing that fulfillment through online social media platforms depends on how it is being utilized.
What this vein of research is suggesting is that even though the average Facebook user might have hundreds of friends (the average for an adult is 338), more friends might not mean more support, connection, or closeness. Is it possible that you have too many friends?
Proposed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar in 1992, Dunbar’s number represents the number of relationships we are cognitively able to manage and to which we can legitimately feel connected at a given time. That number is 150. Dunbar came to this number by looking at the correlation between primate brain size and average social group size. Originally born from an extension of the Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis in anthropology which holds that primates have bigger brains due to living in socially complex societies, Dunbar sought to apply this same principal to humans. Although 150 was the number he popped out based on calculations relative to the size of the average human neo-cortex, it’s actually a range between 100 and 200 of casual social connections that you’d, say, be inclined to invite to a party.
Exploring what this means to human social relationship, Dunbar’s research continued to look into a hierarchical structure of social ties – that is, how the number of people in groups that vary in closeness to you grows or shrinks in line with the Rule of Three. If you were going to invite your 150 causal friends to a party, only 50 (give or take!) is the number of friends you’d invite to a slightly more intimate dinner. The next layer is around 15 people you feel comfortable turning to and feel you can talk to in confidence. The existence of this circle is supported by the data: according to Facebook’s in-house sociologist Cameron Marlow, the average woman on Facebook posts on the walls of 26 friends and communicates directly with 16 (and for men its 17 and 10 respectively). 5 is the number in your closest support group, the besties that you trust. Dunbar argues that these closest ‘friends’ are often family members. In contrast, Dunbar also argues that you can have around 500 acquaintances and around 1500 people to which you can put a name to a face.
Even though there are people with Facebook friends in the thousands, Dunbar claims that the data shows most people maintaining a similar inner circle closer to 150 that parallels the social relationships in the real world. Though social media might seem like it’s an easier medium on which to cultivate friendships, research is increasingly showing that this does not translate into the real world. In line with Dunbar’s claims, for all of us primates, having numerically more friends on social media does not necessarily mean more connection thanks to the way we are wired and the size of our brains.
Too much of a good thing?
Even external perceptions about how many friends someone has can make an impact. A 2008 study found that when asked to evaluate a person’s social attractiveness of Facebook users that differed only in the number of listed Facebook friends (listed as either 102, 302, 502, 702, or 902), social appeal peaked at 302 and dropped off before and after that. Why? Too few friends – maybe you aren’t an active user on the platform, or maybe you lack in social skills. Too many? Those with too many friends might be signalling they are interested in boosting that number only in the online environment, where perhaps they feel more comfortable, rather than nurturing genuine connections in face-to-face social interactions.
Antisocial Social Media
Social media networks are changing the way we interact, no question. They are opportunities to connect within networks strategically and work towards better business outcomes and collaboration. They allow people to catch up or keep track of each other when they might not have been able to in the past. But it is not a substitute for face-to-face social connectivity of the shared experience. You might be able to tag a friend so that they see the same meme, but it won’t replace laughing about it in person, foregoing a chance for real connectivity.
Researchers Daniel Perlman and Letitia Anne Peplau define loneliness as “a mismatch between the quantity and quality of the social relationships that we have, and those we want.” This suggests that in order to stave off the loneliness we risk by being social media users, we must more actively manage to match the quality and quantity of our relationships. Knowing this, we might have more freedom to acknowledge that larger numbers of Facebook friends does not lead to more fulfillment and to focus on those ones that matter to us the most. I’ve just unfriended around 175 people from my Facebook and it felt pretty great.