Maintaining Close Friendships Requires Face-to-Face Contact

Without face-to-face contact, genuine Facebook friends can become acquaintances.

Posted Jan 19, 2016

VLADGRIN/Shutterstock
Source: VLADGRIN/Shutterstock

Over a century ago, long before the advent of social media, William James observed, "Human beings are born into this little span of life of which the best thing is its friendships and intimacies . . . and yet they leave their friendships and intimacies with no cultivation, to grow as they will by the roadside, expecting them to "keep" by force of mere inertia." 

A new study from the University of Oxford reaffirms the importance of cultivating and nurturing friendships with face-to-face contact. The researchers found that using social media exclusively to interact with close friends may inadvertently cause the bonds of these friendships to weaken. 

Facebook May Weaken the Bonds Between Close Friends 

Social media is a very tempting platform for maintaining an extensive social network with hundreds of people simultaneously. But, how many of these online connections are truly friends? Does an abundance of Facebook ‘friends’ diminish or fortify the real connection that genuine friends have with one another?

To answer some of these questions, Robin Dunbar, who is currently head of the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford, carried out two surveys of more than 3300 people to see whether having online friendships resulted in having more, or less, close friends.

The January 2016 paper, “Do Online Social Media Cut Through the Constraints That Limit the Size of Offline Social Networks?” was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science. Unfortunately, for all of us who use Facebook excessively (myself included), the researchers found that solely nurturing online friendships can backfire and cause the strong social bonds with true friends to become diluted.

How Many of Your Facebook Friends Could You Count on In a Crisis?

William Perugini/Shutterstock
Source: William Perugini/Shutterstock

When Dunbar asked participants how many online ‘friends’ someone would lean on for support in a crisis, and how many ‘friends’ they would turn to for sympathy—the numbers were very low. Although the average number of Facebook friends was between 155-183 people, only a handful of these people were close enough friends to be counted on during a crisis.

Additionally, one typical group of social media users in the study considered only 28% of their Facebook friends to actually be 'genuine' friends.

These findings support Dunbar’s “Social Brain Hypothesis," which was created before the use of Facebook exploded. This hypothesis was based on the idea that our brain's ability to process multiple relationships creates a natural group size for humans of between 100 - 200 people. "Dunbar's Number," is a measurement of the "cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships"

Historically, the size of someone's social network has been constrained by the time required to maintain relationships. Because each of us only has so much time in a given day to devote to meet and socialize with people, some experts believed that social media might overcome the constraints of building close-knit human bonds. 

Although Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram allow us to interact with many more people at the same time, it appears that these social network connections don't translate into stronger social bonds with close friends. Despite having a larger group of online 'friends,' it appears that maintaining close friends still requires face-to-face contact. In a press release, Dunbar explained:

"Social media certainly help to slow down the natural rate of decay in relationship quality that would set in once we cannot readily meet friends face-to-face. But no amount of social media will prevent a friend eventually becoming 'just another acquaintance' if you don't meet face-to-face from time to time.

There is something paramount about face-to-face interactions that is crucial for maintaining friendships. Seeing the white of their eyes from time to time seems to be crucial to the way we maintain friendships.”

Dunbar's colleague, Sue Fudge, added, "Although social media may seem like the perfect way to make and maintain friendships, this research shows that face-to-face interaction is essential for truly authentic relationships and that shares, selfies and 'likes' are no replacement for the bonding that takes place whilst sharing food, experiences and anecdotes.”

The Rapid Explosion of Facebook and Potential 'Future Shock'

Facebook/Creative Commons
In 2004 Facebook had 1 million monthly users. By 2012, that number had grown to 1,056 million users. 
Source: Facebook/Creative Commons

How often do you socialize with family, friends, and loved ones face-to-face? Like most people, I find myself communicating more and more via text message and using Facebook more regularly as a primary method of maintaining a social network. Facebook was founded in 2004. By 2006, Facebook only had 12 million monthly users. By November 2015, that number had skyrocketed to 1,550 million users.

My personal phone calls and email correspondences with friends and family have shriveled up in the past few years. Luckily, I live and work in a community where I see friends and colleagues face-to-face on a daily basis, but a huge portion of my 'socializing' occurs via Facebook. 

In his prophetic 1970 book, Future Shock, Alvin Toffler warned of the detrimental impact on the psychological state of individuals and entire societies based on "too much change in too short a period of time." The omnipresence of Facebook in our daily lives recently, and the use of social media to sustain human bonds, might be leading to a type of 'Future Shock' that is causing our minds and bodies to short circuit. 

Conclusion: Maintaining Face-to-Face Connections Is of Paramount Importance

Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

A wide range of research suggests that maintaining close-knit social ties is the best way to promote well-being throughout a person's lifespan. One reason the psycho-pharmacological business is booming is that human beings have not evolved to spend our days isolated behind digital screens interacting via social media. Doctors prescribe pills to make people feel better, I would prescribe making more of an effort to have face-to-face connections with friends and family. 

Hopefully, the latest groundbreaking research on the health benefits of strong social bonds and the importance of face-to-face contact for maintaining friendships will serve as a call-to-action for each of us to unplug our digital devices and make showing up in person a top priority.

To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

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