There’s always someone who has more Twitter followers or more friends on Facebook.
This can be annoying and makes some people feel socially inadequate. But take heart, the latest research shows these amazing online networkers probably don’t have more “real” friends than you do.
Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford, tested what he called the “urban myth” about having more friends online than the real world.
And he found that the average number of friends on Facebook approximates the natural size of personal social networks — about 150 individuals.
“This suggests that the constraints that limit the number of friends we can have in the everyday offline world also limit the number we have online,” he says. “I suggest that this is because friendships ultimately require occasional face-to-face interaction if they are to be maintained over time.”
The study of 3,000 adults, published in the Royal Society’s Royal Society Open Science, indicates there is a an inbuilt constraint in our brains on the size of social networks that even the communication advantages of online media can’t overcome.
“Given the extensive use of social media, the question as to whether Internet-based social networking sites have a positive or negative impact on social relationships has been much debated,” Dunbar writes.
“Cyberpessimists have argued that the Internet has detrimental effects on our social life. In contrast, cyberoptimists have insisted that the effects have been beneficial in many different ways.”
Dunbar says social media be able to prevent friendships decaying over time in the absence of opportunities for face-to-face contact.
“However, that alone may not be sufficient to prevent friendships eventually dying naturally if they are not occasionally reinforced by face-to-face interaction,” Dunbar says.
In his study, Dunbar also noticed a tendency for teenagers to move away from using Facebook as a social environment and to make use of media such as Snapchat, WeChat, Vine, Flickr and Instagram instead. They use Facebook mainly for managing social arrangements.
“It is not yet entirely clear what has driven this, but the fact that Facebook is too open to view by others seems to have been especially important,” he says.
“Teenagers have much smaller offline social networks than adults, and forcing them to enlarge their network with large numbers of anonymous ‘friends-of-friends’ may place significant strain on their ability to manage their networks.
“Thus, this trend towards more private social media may actually confirm the claim being made here — that open-ended social media do not in fact allow us to increase the sizes of our social circles.”
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