Friendship in the Facebook Age

One monkey giving another a back rub

When it comes to friendship, do your students value quantity over quality? Are they indiscriminant in the sending and accepting of friend requests?

If so, they’re clicking on the wrong links. Or maybe they’re just clicking too much and too often.

According to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the neocortex of the human brain is larger than that of any other primate because we live in larger social groups that require more complexity. Though we can handle a much bigger social group than our chimpanzee cousins, our brains can’t handle interacting with more than about 150 people.

In his Weblog, social media consultant Robert Paterson explains Dunbar’s number of 150, or more precisely, 147.8: “This figure seems to represent the maximum amount of people that we can have a real social relationship with – knowing who another human is and how they relate to us.”

The evidence for this comes from several places: in researching the anthropological literature, Dunbar found studies of 21 different hunter-gatherer tribes that lived in average groups of 148.4. Military units tend to be no larger than 200; the religious group called the Hutterites learned through hundreds of years of trial and error that a colony should never exceed 150 people; the founder of Gore Associates (who make Gore-Tex) came to the same conclusion, also through trial and error, and the result is that each of their plants stops growing at 150 people.

What happens when you try to pay attention to more than 150 people? Paterson says, “People become strangers to one another.” Cliques form; loyalties divide; in the military, hierarchies and rules have to be established to keep the unit together.

What happens when you try to pay attention to too many people online? One extreme possibility is Facebook Addiction Disorder. Therapist and Huffington Post blogger Lisa Haisha says people are using Facebook to escape from reality, all the while telling themselves that they are keeping in touch with people. What’s really happening, Haisha writes, is “less human interaction, less touch, less accountability, and less human connection.”  If you’re spending much more than an hour a day on Facebook, you may be using it to fill a void in your life, to escape depression or loneliness. The problem is, “the more time you spend on Facebook, the more depressed and lonely you become, and you have to spend even more time online to eliminate those negative feelings. Eventually it’s a vicious cycle that seems to have no way out.”

One teacher tells the story of a former student who had serious socialization problems and spent more time in the nurse’s office than in class. She had nearly 1,000 friends on Facebook, and she constantly updated her status so that if she didn’t show up in school or didn’t update for a while, she got messages asking where she was. These messages made her feel like she had an active, healthy social life, but it only existed in the virtual world.

Haisha argues that the majority of the time people spend on Facebook is wasted. You’re better off going out and interacting face-to-face with people. In the real world you can’t blast everyone you know all at once with the breaking news that last night’s episode of Hoarders made you cry, but you can have interactions that give you the reward of real connection.

What does this mean for your young cyber-socialites? Their happiness is better served putting more energy into nurturing the relationships they already value, and doing so in the real world. Those who can’t control their Facebook usage should seek help from a therapist, psychologist, or counselor.

* For a language-arts lesson plan that helps kids (11-13) understand social networking and how to use it responsibly, click here.

* For Robert Paterson’s response to this post – in which he elaborates on how many people we can care for, and points out Facebook’s usefulness – click here.