Facebook, sadness and the ‘friendship paradox’…


Understanding the social impact of Facebook and the other social media is an ongoing challenge.  Yes, it helps us stay in touch with lots of friends and acquaintances.  It’s a good way to quickly pass on certain kinds of information.  And we can readily share photos.

But a common sense understanding says that this is not all the social media does.  Justin Mullins, a writer for the BBC, suggests that a comment about television by the poet T. S. Eliot in the 1960s is apropos.


It is a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome.


Writing on the 10th anniversary of Facebook’s founding, Mullins points out that since February 2004 Facebook has signed up 1.3 billion people.  Half of them “log in on any given day and spend an average of 18 minutes per visit. Facebook connects families across continents, friends across the years and people around the world.”


And yet Facebook’s effects on its users may not be entirely benign.Some researchers suggest that the ability to connect does not necessarily make people any happier, and it could in fact reduce the satisfaction they feel about their life. Can it really be possible that Facebook makes you sad?


In the summer of 2013, researchers at the University of Michigan found that the use of Facebook correlated to a low sense of well-being. 


The team found that Facebook use correlated with a low sense of well-being. “The more people used Facebook over two-weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time,” they said. “Rather than enhancing well-being… these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.”


Mullins offers some reasons for why this might be the case.


It could be that people feeling down were more likely to visit Facebook …


One possibility might be simple jealousy. … it can be deflating to see cousins and former school-friends routinely boasting about their career successes, holidays or new children.


Facebook is an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social contact. But they suspect that [the kind of contact Facebook provides does not make people feel better since it doesn’t provide the kind of contact that makes] people feel better over time.


But a more scientifically rigorous reason is the “friendship paradox,” which tells us that our friends almost always have more friends than we do.


Back in 1991, the sociologist Scott Feld uncovered a surprise while studying the nature of social networks in the pre-internet age. The data came from asking children at several schools who their friends were, whether these friendships were reciprocated and then drawing up the resulting network by hand.


Feld counted the number of friends each individual had, and compared that to the number of friends the friends had. To everyone’s great surprise, he discovered that a child’s friends almost always had more friends than they did, on average. …


Although highly counterintuitive, there is a straightforward mathematical reason for this. People with lots of friends are more likely to number among your friends in the first place. And when they do, they significantly raise the average number of friends that your friends have. People have more friends than you do simply because the average is skewed.


The rise of online social networks has confirmed all of this, not least because researchers suddenly have access to a level of detail that was unheard of before the internet era. According to Nathan Hodas and colleagues at the University of Southern California, the friendship paradox holds true for more than 98% of Twitter users too.


What a bummer!  “Unlike physical world friendships, on Facebook you can see exactly how popular your more popular friends are.”  



“Can Facebook make you sad?” by Justin Mullins, was published in the BBC Future column and is available here.




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One Response to “Facebook, sadness and the ‘friendship paradox’…”

  1. Envy, jealousy, and “keeping up with the Jones” always is a problem. But Social Media also give us a chance to participate in a more wide-ranging conversation about important things (eternity, civic concerns) that we have largely ceased to have. In some ways, Social Media has become “the public square.” May God bless that aspect of His good creation!