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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD 5.1.24

How many friends do you have? Acquaintances? Social media contacts? There are a lot of ways to think about friends and friendship, and the landscape is changing all the time. All forms of friendship and social contact hold some meaning for us, whether it is close, meaningful relationships or casual interactions.

It seems obvious that social relationships are important, and they are. Study after study shows that positive relationships improve quality of life: Emotional well-being and physical well-being are directly connected to quality relationships. Some studies have found that positive relationships and support affect longevity and physical well-being, including recovering from significant health issues. People with strong relationships and connections consistently report less depression and anxiety.

If you read my posts regularly, you know that I have highlighted many concerns about excessive use of screens. When it comes to friendships, the screens have both positive and negative impact. It is clear that using screens helps us stay in touch with people easily. How many text messages do you send in a day? What about social media private messages? And how about simple comments, likes and shares? These are all ways to stay in touch, but none of them should replace actual conversation and in-person interaction with people you consider to be close friends.

Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, has studied human capacity for relationships and came up with what is now known as “Dunbar’s Number”. In his research, he looked at cognitive capacity for maintaining relationships, and after numerous studies found that the number of relationships a person can reasonably maintain is 150. There are variations to this number – people who are more extroverted may have a somewhat higher number. He also finds that there are wider circles of more basic acquaintances (up to 500) or people you recognize (up to 1500), but that the number 150 seems to capture “meaningful contacts”. He also suggests that within the 150, there are subsets that include loved ones, close friends, friends, and meaningful contacts. For people who have more than 150 social media “friends”, or names in their contact lists, many of those will include people who are in the acquaintance group.

Assume that Dunbar’s number is about right when you consider your own connections. 150 people are actually a lot of people to keep track of on a regular basis. This is where social media and easy communication (texting!) can come in handy, without a doubt. The risk of this is losing the quality of your interactions and your friendships. In-person, face-to-face contact has a quality that you can’t get from texting and messaging.

So how do we maintain friendships in our busy and digital world, without compromising quality of interactions? How do we prioritize when we have access to so many people?

Consider this hierarchy of interaction.

  • Liking or sharing posts on social media
  • Commenting on posts
  • Sending private messages (social media) or text messages
  • Making phone calls (1:1)
  • Making video calls
  • Seeing each other in person

As easy as it is to do the first 3 things on this list, we have to be careful not to rely so much on these easy forms of interaction that we forget how to be social, or that we lose intimacy in friendships. In the coming weeks, we will look at some simple strategies for friendship, including:

  • How can we make more friends?
  • How can we develop close friendships?
  • How do we find time for building and maintaining relationships?
  • How do we balance the digital interactions with the face-to-face interactions?

Make sure to check back for great tips each week!

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