Facebook Friends: How the world’s most popular website is improving our social ties

I’m not supposed to be typing this.

I’m supposed to tell you about all the red-letter dangers of the Big Bad Internet. I’m supposed to make you tremble at the thought of turning on your computer in fear that some ferocious porn girl will flash you, or some predator will run off with your kids, or you’ll wake up one morning and find you son is 36 years old, still living at home, and has wasted his life playing World of Warcraft, having no hope for a bright future.

And I’m supposed to tell you that sites like Facebook are literally ruining face-to-face relationships, and twenty years from now we’ll all not know how to make eye contact or communicate using our vocal cords.

I’m supposed to, but today, I’m not.

Researchers from the Pew Internet & American Life Project have concluded: Social network users, especially regular Facebook users, have more close friendships and social support on average than other people

How do they figure this? Social scientists often talk about our “core network.” These are the close confidants in our lives, those who can be depended on for emotional support, companionship, instrumental aid, and the people with whom we can discuss important matters. Those who have more ties and closer ties in their core network have more overall support in their lives.

Let’s look at some numbers. According to Pew’s research, on a scale of 0 to 100 (called a “Social Support Scale”), the average American scores 75/100 for “total support.” They are graded on specifics like emotional support (such as receiving advice and information from others), companionship (such as having people to spend time with), and tangible aid (such as having someone to help if you are sick in bed).

But what about the average Facebook user? Those who use the website multiple times a day score 5 points higher in total social support than other Internet users (8 points higher than non-Internet users), 5 points higher in emotional support than either Internet or non-Internet users, and 5 points higher in companionship than other Internet users (11 higher than non-Internet users). They do not report any more or less access to tangible aid than other Internet users.

Putting this in perspective: The average person who starts frequently using Facebook gets about half the boost in points of someone who has just gotten married. That’s a lot.

Here are some other highlights from the report:

  • 15% of non-Internet users have “no close ties” but only 7% of Internet users said the same (and only 5% of social network users).
  • Frequent users of Facebook have larger core networks. Those who use Facebook a few times per day tend to have about 9% more strong ties that those who do not.
  • When asked about their total community network (family, friends, neighbors, former classmates, work associates, etc.) the average adult Facebook user has “friended” about 48% of that network.
  • 40% of social network site users have friended literally all their core discussion confidants. This is up from 29% two years ago.

In conclusion, it is simply a myth that a frequent user of Facebook, on average, is cutting him or herself off from quality relationships. Rather, the opposite seems to be true. More and more people are using social networks to not only maintain and strengthen their current social ties, but also to increase the size of their core network.

Now, this isn’t the only verdict out on Facebook. There are many other questions to consider about this popular social network. But for now we can say, along with Pew’s researchers, that Facebook and other social networks can add great benefit to our lives.

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