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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