Online Friends Don’t Deliver Offline Happiness

Social networking is a way of life. Although they have experienced peaks and dips in popularity, social networking sites have been permanently woven into the fabric of our modern world. And yet, there is little research into the impact of online friendships on overall well-being. One reason for the lack of research is that it is difficult to compare online relationships to real-life ones. Additionally, well-being is subjective and can be interpreted differently by different people.

However, in an effort to determine if online or offline friends make a bigger impact on overall well-being, John F. Helliwell of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia recently conducted a study of over 5,000 internet users. Helliwell used online surveys to ask respondents about their online friendships and their offline friendships. The respondents were also asked to provide demographic information.

Helliwell found that overwhelmingly, respondents reported that the number of offline friends influenced their well-being. In fact, even when personality, demographics, and socioeconomic status were controlled for, real-life friends were significantly related to well-being. Helliwell also discovered that when the number of offline friends was doubled, it had the same effect on happiness and well-being as increasing income by 50%.

Upon further investigation, Helliwell found that online friends had practically no impact on well-being. When he looked at demographics, Helliwell discovered variances in the value that certain groups of people placed on friendships. Real-life friendships were the least important to married or cohabitating individuals and most important to divorced, single, widowed, or separated people. Respondents who were single but dating valued real life friendships more than married people but less than single people did. In fact, single and dating individuals had levels of well-being almost as high as those who were cohabitating, and cohabitating people had well-being that was almost as high as married people.

“These results also suggest that the company and friendship of marriage matter as much as the legal institution,” said Helliwell. The findings of this study have obvious limitations, but provide a unique and fresh look into the way in which online and offline relationships impact overall well-being.

Helliwell, J.F., Huang, H. (2013). Comparing the happiness effects of real and on-line friends. PLoS ONE 8(9): e72754. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0072754

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Scotty


    September 19th, 2013 at 3:51 AM

    I don’t want to feel like I have to depend on online “friendships” to fill a void in my life, although I know quite a lot of people looking to fill up those voids with just that.

    My real friends? Those are the people I can talk to on eht phone and have lunch with and connect with in a more meaningful and personal way. The ones I chat with online are mostly just time killers.

  • adrienne


    September 20th, 2013 at 4:02 AM

    The sad thing about this for so many is that they invest quite a lot of time and energy into these online friends and relationships. I am not too sure why other than this must feel safer to them than it does to really interact with others face to face but obviously it isn’t winning them any real friendships and it isn’t increasing happiness when they are aaway from the screen. I am sure that there are numerous cases where interventions are desperately needed but who is there to do it when most of the friendships are created online and there is no one there to intervene in person? I feel bad for people who have gotten sucked into this online world because for all of the good it can do it can cause som real trouble for you too if not managed very carefully.

  • Pepper


    September 23rd, 2013 at 3:53 AM

    The online friends? That’s all so superficial to me, like they just want you to see that they have 542 FB friends. I don’t even know that many people, much less people that I want to be real friends with!

  • Kat


    November 12th, 2013 at 9:55 AM

    I met a online friend in a game we both play, (same guild, rp partners) since then we’ve become Facebook friends and we’re pretty close. We share so much in common.

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