Communication Technology and
Friendship During the Transition
from High School to College
Jonathon N. Cummings
John B. Lee
People maintain only a limited number of personal relationships. Researchers estimate that people typically keep 10–20 important relationships out of the approximately 1000 individuals with whom they interact or can identify (e.g., Fischer, 1982; Wellman, 1992). Friendships, in contrast to family relationships, are especially fragile and require active maintenance or they die (Canary & Stafford, 1994). Although family ties exist because of the accident of birth and are often maintained through obligation, friendship and romantic relationships are voluntary. They grow, decline, and end through concrete actions (Allan, 1979).
In this chapter, we examine how young adults maintain friendships when faced with life events that threaten them, such as moving from high school to college. In particular, we examine the role that phone and computer communications play in maintaining these friendships as the parties move geographically apart.
In Duck's analogy (1988), friendships need a regular investment of effort; otherwise, normal centripetal forces cause the friendship to come apart. In this view, people develop and maintain particular relationships by enacting them (i.e., by carrying them out through regular exchanges of communication or social support; Duck, 1988). Initial factors that bring people together, such as common interests, shared work goals, beauty, or charm, lose power with time (Berg & Clark, 1986). These factors must be supplemented with behavioral exchanges that affect whether the relationship will be valued and retained or devalued and dropped (Berg & Clark, 1986). Regular contact is at the heart of friendship (Allan, 1979). We typically grow to like others with whom we communicate and spend time, and this liking drives further companionship (Newcomb, 1961). It is in this sense that friendships are enacted. They are maintained through communication and other behavioral exchanges.
Since at least the 1930s, we have known that physical proximity increases the likelihood of friendships and romantic relationships (e.g., Bossard, 1932; Festinger, Schachter, & Back, 1950). However, when people are separated by geographic distance, it becomes more difficult to enact relationships through communication and the exchange of social support. As a result, when people change residences and move away, personal ties often fade and dissolve. Rose (1984), for example, found geographic separation to be the factor most often associated with the disintegration of friendships.
Physical proximity is conducive to the growth and maintenance of personal relationships, whereas