Are Online Friends as Valuable as Real Ones?

(Photo: birgerking)

New research (gated, sorry) by John Helliwell and Haifang Huang suggests the answer may be no, especially for those most in need of friendship. Depending on your perspective, this may strike you as a) revelatory or b) from the Dept. of “Duh.” The abstract:

A recent large Canadian survey permits us to compare real-time and on-line social networks as sources of subjective well-being.  The sample of 5,000 is drawn randomly from an on-line pool of respondents, a group well placed to have and value on-line friendships.  We find three key results.  First, the number of real-life friends is positively correlated with subjective well-being (SWB) even after controlling for income, demographic variables and personality differences.  Doubling the number of friends in real life has an equivalent effect on well-being as a 50% increase in income. Second, the size of online networks is largely uncorrelated with subjective well-being. Third, we find that real-life friends are much more important for people who are single, divorced, separated or widowed than they are for people who are married or living with a partner.  Findings from large international surveys (the European Social Surveys 2002-2008) are used to confirm the importance of real-life social networks to SWB; they also indicate a significantly smaller value of social networks to married or partnered couples.


I can't read the study, but how do they conclude a causality, rather than just a correlation ? The causality may be that a better well being mean someone will be more friendly, or a third caracteristic causes a high SWB and more friends. Do they use and instrumental variable ?

Enter your name...

Given the number of times that the word "correlated" appears in the abstract, I don't believe that they are claiming causality.


Social Media should be used to ENHANCE real friendships, NOT substitute for them. Friends and family far away particularly like to see photos and interact online. (I remember writing long letters and waiting days or weeks for a reply . . . couldn't afford "long distance" charges.)

Checking Facebook prior to gatherings can give you something extra to talk about.

Eric M. Jones

Yeh, but this is clearly a moving target. Ten years ago, a story about a "virtual friend" could have been written as some sort of strange spooky sci-fi drama. Ten years from now this will not be unusual at all.

Meeting in person is probably over-rated.

Chris L

This actually makes sense. My experience has been that generally online friendships tend to be a lot more fickle than those forged with people I meet in person. While there have been exceptions to this, I have found that often online 'friends' tend to disappear and no longer be friends if I say something they don't like in an online discussion. On the other hand, I find that friends I meet in person, often, are people I'll still be talking to in 5-10 years' time.

I'm not claiming my "sample size" is enough to draw any major conclusions on the rest of the world, but my experience has certainly been that real friends offer more value.

Andreas Moser

Facebook killed all my virtual friends by deleting my account: While it sucked at first (for a day or two), I quickly came to appreciate the free time I had gained, some of which i used to cultivate real friendships.