Just How Many Facebook Friends Do You Need?

By Henig, Robin Marantz Henig With Samantha | Newsweek, October 22, 2012 | Go to article overview

Just How Many Facebook Friends Do You Need?


Henig, Robin Marantz Henig With Samantha, Newsweek


Byline: Robin Marantz Henig With Samantha Henig

Twenty-somethings spend hours each day keeping their social networks going. But a thousand BFFs just may be a few hundred too many. The torture of modern friendship.

Ask a group of elderly people what it was about their lives that made them happiest overall, and they'll probably mention some warm relationships with family and friends. If you're satisfied with your social life, according to psychologists, you tend to be satisfied with life in general.

From the vantage point of my 50s, I'd say that sounds about right. Some of my happiest moments are the ones I spend with my husband, a few close relatives, and a handful of very good friends who know me well and like me anyway. But the more I read about how social media are interfering with good old-fashioned friendship, creating virtual bonds that can't quite take the place of real ones, the more I wonder just how today's 20-somethings will look back on their own lives when they're my age.

After all, much crucial relationship building work is done in the 20s. According to research by the late Bernice Neugarten of the University of Chicago, who helped launch the academic study of human development, people choose most of their adult relationships, both friends and lovers, between the ages of 22 and 28. The friends we make in our 20s are not only BFFs; they're also our first truly chosen friends, people we discover as a result of our adult decisions--where to live, work, or study--as opposed to our parents' choices. And choosing how to reconfigure and commit to these friendships is an essential psychological task of the 20s. Finding intimacy--the basis and byproduct of good friendships--is one of the five major life tasks of young adults ages 18 to 30, according to Robert Arnstein, a Yale psychiatrist who was, like Neugarten, a pioneer in the study of development through the life span.

But with so much of friendship in this age group now being navigated online, an essential question is what the effect of that interaction is. And as a mother of two young adults, I feel this question personally. Will my younger daughter, Samantha, 28, some day feel that she missed out somehow on this crucial life resource?

One measure of the effect of social media on real-world social life comes from a study conducted in 2010 by Craig Watkins and Erin Lee of the University of Texas at Austin, who investigated the Facebook habits of 776 young people between the ages of 18 and 35. "No matter if it is a wall post, a comment, or a photo," they wrote in "Got Facebook? Investigating What's Social About Social Media," "young people's engagement with Facebook is driven, primarily, by a desire to stay connected to and involved in the lives of friends who live close by, far away, or have just entered into their lives."

This kind of constant contact can be efficient, but it can also be unsettling. For one thing, it adds a new layer of angst to a young person's already-heightened awareness of social ranking, giving appearance-conscious young people yet another thing to fret about. "I see other 20-somethings feeling pressured to constantly keep up a public image, especially a cyber-public image," wrote Ariana Allensworth of Brooklyn on the group blog the Twenty-somethings. "Folks are always keeping the world in the loop one way or another about what they're up to, where they're at, what projects they're working on. It can be a bit much at times." Not the most fertile ground for real-world friendship.

Robin's daughter Samantha says: I see what it is about all this that worries my mother. What especially bothers me about social networks isn't so much their effect on the institution of friendship as it is the way they make me think, to an off-putting degree, about the image I'm projecting. I hate that sometimes I say something clever in real life and actually think, I should tweet that. Or that when my friend sends an email of a flattering photo he took of me, I get annoyed that he didn't post it to Facebook, where others could see it. …

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