The findings were based on research conducted by Robin Dunbar, a British evolutionary psychologist and anthropologist, affiliated with the University of Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology.
The acclaimed scientist previously calculated the maximum number of social connections that a person can actively maintain.
That figure, known as “Dunbar’s number”, has been measured at 150; beyond that threshold, it’s no longer possible for relationships to remain stable and cohesive enough, and it’s much more likely for participants to feel alienated from one another.
Now, Dunbar took his research one step further, in order to assess the authenticity of online relationships, which develop and are maintained on social networking platforms.
By examining the results of a survey conducted in the United Kingdom, across 3,375 Facebook users, aged 18 to 65, the psychologist was able to determine how many of these subjects’ virtual friends were actually genuine.
By and large, study participants had approximately 150 Facebook friends, who they could constantly update regarding important changes in their lives or more trivial pursuits.
And yet, despite having their whole existence under the lens of such a large group, subjects admitted that they could only rely on around 4.1 of these followers in times of need or when experiencing great distress.
They also revealed that they believed slightly more than a quarter (27%) of the bonds they had created online were authentic and valuable.
In addition, respondents declared that just 13.6 of those who were in their wide circle of Facebook friends showed any sympathy to them during difficult moments, the rest of the group ignoring them or displaying little consideration for their feelings of anguish.
As Dunbar explains, while these figures may appear overly low and disappointing, they are actually in accordance with his prior observations, centered around offline friendships.
When a person uses social media extensively, and develops an extremely high number of followers or friends, this doesn’t necessarily mean that these connections actually translate into a larger social group in real life.
Actually, people who are extremely active on social networking websites like Facebook generally have just as many offline relationships as their counterparts who don’t dedicate that much time to socializing online.
Dunbar also emphasized that social networking often involves befriending people just for the sake of it, without planning to ever speak to them or get to know them in real life.
Collecting “friends” with whom you share little in common and with whom you have no plans of interacting later on is a common practice nowadays, especially among the younger generation.
As a result, people in this age group tend to have a much wider virtual social circle, while older individuals focus less on expanding this group.
Instead, those who have already transitioned from adolescence into early adulthood and beyond it nurture more friendships in real life, eventually having much more companions who would support them and remain by their side when they’re at their lowest.
Online friendships do have an advantage, in that they allow people to artificially preserve relationships more easily, by contacting their pals once in a while, thus giving the illusion of staying in touch.
However, as emphasized by Dunbar, in the absence of real-world interaction, many friendships cannot survive that long, bonds growing weaker and weaker until they eventually break apart.
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