Social media no match for face-to-face contact, says researcher

Online sites helpful for keeping in touch but friends need to meet in real life

New research has found that although social media helps slow down the natural rate of decay in relationship quality, it cannot replace face-to-face contact.

New research has found that although social media helps slow down the natural rate of decay in relationship quality, it cannot replace face-to-face contact.

 

You might have 800 friends on Facebook but that does not mean much unless you meet them in real life every now and then, according to research from the University of Oxford.

The “social brain hypothesis” says our brain’s ability to process multiple relationships creates a natural group size for humans of 100 to 200 people. This size is also constrained by the time required to maintain relationships – we only have so much time to devote to meeting or talking to people.

It has been suggested that social media provided a way around these time constraints because posts, tweets and pictures allow users to talk to many more people at the same time.

But research from professor Robin Dunbar published in Royal Society Open Science found that although social media helps slow down the natural rate of decay in relationship quality, it cannot replace face-to-face contact.

In two surveys of more than 3,300 people he found that even among regular social media users, the average number of friends they had on Facebook was 155 in the first survey and 183 in the second, right in the bracket predicted by the social brain hypothesis.

The first survey group, made up of regular social media users, considered only 28 per cent of their Facebook friends to be “genuine” friends. When asked specifically how many people they would turn to for support in a crisis and how many they would turn to for sympathy, on average those groups were just 4 and 14 friends respectively.

This suggests that while social media seems to allow someone to have more friends, it is because looser acquaintances were being included in the ‘friend’ category, partly because social media sites tend not to differentiate between close and more distant relationships.

“Social media certainly helps to slow down the natural rate of decay in relationship quality that would set in once we cannot readily meet friends face-to-face,” said Prof Dunbar.

“ 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 heir eyes from time to time seems to be crucial to the way we maintain friendships.”