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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.