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Icons for social networks Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest are seen on a building in New York on January 13, 2016.

Study asks: How many Facebook friends are real friends?

Social networks such as Facebook can help strengthen real-life relationships, but having a huge online network is no predictor of the number of offline friends a person has.

The average Facebook user has about 150 friends on the social network, but that’s not the same thing as having 150 friends in real life, a new study finds. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar concluded that on average, only about 15 Facebook friends can be counted on to lend emotional support in difficult times, and only five Facebook friends could be counted as “close” friends.

That doesn’t mean that Facebook friendships are worthless, though. Mr. Dunbar found that social networks allow people to maintain relationships even when they’re busy or live far away from their friends. Facebook can be a good way to make sure that friendships don’t fade away, the study concedes.

However, friendships need to be occasionally reinforced with face-to-face chats or they may fizzle out. That means social networks can help strengthen existing relationships – but they probably don’t allow people to expand their offline social circles. Even people with a thousand or more Facebook friends don’t have the time to cultivate so many social relationships.

Dunbar, who teaches evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, is famous for “Dunbar’s number,” which estimates that people can only maintain about 150 stable social relationships – he suggests we simply don’t have the emotional energy to keep in touch with more people than that.

The Facebook study suggests that social networking is no exception. Even though Facebook and other networks make it much easier to communicate with friends, there’s no real correlation between the number of Facebook friends someone has and the number of offline friends they have. At best, Dunbar finds, social networks allow people to cultivate casual friendships, which don’t require much emotional investment. Think of people you’d be glad to chat with at a party, but wouldn’t turn to for support in a crisis.

Dunbar found that young people tend to have more Facebook friends, but that older people have more friends in real life.

“A likely explanation for this difference,” he writes, “probably lies in the fact that [social networks] typically encourage promiscuous ‘friending’ of individuals who often have very tenuous links to [a person].”

Dunbar also speculates that as young adults seek out new friends they’re more likely to send out many online friend requests “as a means of testing out the opportunities available to them.” 

Dunbar also found that teenagers are relying more heavily on social networks and apps such as Snapchat, WeChat, Vine, Flickr, and Instagram instead of Facebook. The study speculated that teenagers find Facebook too open, and don’t like that their conversations and pictures are visible to “friends of friends” by default. Smaller, more private social networks may make it easier for teenagers to manage their real-life relationships.

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