Has the overuse of the word “friend” devalued the relationships it describes? In a connected world, how valuable are our online relationships? Are we, in fact, disconnected from one another? Must we visit someone at home to call that person a true friend?
As a society, we are pondering the effects — psychological and physiological — of the digital age on relationships and on our psychological health. But we have reason for optimism about the relationship between digital technology and friendship. Many clickbait headlines (“Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”) and the (often only slightly) more sober scientific reports that give rise to those headlines are not actually about relationships. They grapple broadly with the effect of technology and social media on “well-being.” Furthermore, the results to date have been so mixed they amount to a scientific version of he said, she said. For every study that finds a rise in loneliness, there is another showing an increase in connection.
The first — and still only — major survey to explicitly examine the intersection of people’s social media use and their relationships both online and off-line was conducted for the Pew Research Center in 2011 and led by Keith Hampton, who is now at Michigan State University. Despite the worries over degraded and devalued relationships, the Pew survey of 2,255 adults found that people who were more active on social media had stronger relationships across the board. For instance, Facebook users had slightly more close relationships than nonusers. They got more social support — receiving advice, companionship, help when sick, and so on — than nonusers. “Someone who uses Facebook multiple times per day gets about half the boost in total support that someone receives from being married or living with a partner,” the researchers wrote. The Facebook users were also more politically engaged and more trusting.
Notably, Facebook served to revive “dormant” relationships. Whether you think this is a good trend or an annoying one, the persistence of these old relationships is new. It is one of the few places where Hampton sees a true historical difference…