Are real-life|friends better than|online ones?

Social media helps us connect with more people than we meet in everyday life. But if you never meet someone face-to-face are they a proper friend? Plus, people can more easily lie about who they are online...

How much do you know about friendships?

Virtual friendships rock… and always have?

Some people feel that social media is damaging real friendships and think that teens prefer to like a friend’s Instagram pictures or send a tweet rather than hanging out in real life. But are they right? Hasn’t it always been possible to sustain friendships without being face-to-face?


Thanks to the invention of the smart phone, these days we can pretty much talk to anyone, anytime, anywhere. (Unless you’re on a train, in which case good luck getting any signal - grrr.) But this isn’t such a new phenomenon. Although we can definitely communicate more instantly now than we used to - a text or a Tweet reaches us much quicker than a carrier pigeon - we’ve been chatting to long distance friends since the Roman Empire and before. We just used different tools...

Sneaky smoke signals

Before the written word, letters were off the table. Obviously. So in order to get news to someone far away, you had to either send a messenger - someone with a fast horse and a really good memory - or make a signal of some kind.

In fact signals were still used even after the invention of language as a fast way to deliver a simple message - like to warn your kingdom of an incoming attack. In ancient China, if an enemy force was spotted approaching the Great Wall the soldiers would light a beacon to send smoke across the sky. When the next tower along spotted the smoke they’d light their own beacon, and so on and so on, carrying the signal all the way along the wall to alert the Emperor. Smoke signals could send a message over hundreds of miles in a matter of hours, which was pretty impressive back then.

And this was one of the earliest forms of media/news which, combined with social communication like letter writing, has helped to create the social media that we have today. It might not have been the best way to form deep friendships, but it certainly helped connect people and build good alliances - which is true of many social media and networking sites today.

Lovely letters

Writing letters, on the other hand, is often a great way to create deep and meaningful relationships by exchanging intellectual ideas and deep feelings on pages and pages of paper. In the olden days, it wasn’t uncommon to receive a proposal of marriage by letter, or news that a close family relative had died or was coming to visit. People also had ongoing letter-writing friends - called a pen friend - who they saw very rarely, but often wrote to.

One famous pair of pen friends was Tacitus and Pliny the Younger, who wrote to each other around 80 AD. These two managed to capture one of the greatest natural disasters in history forever - the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii. Pliny wrote two letters to Tacitus to tell the tale of how his father died on the shores near Pompeii as the volcano erupted. At the time, Tacitus was in Rome and Pliny was 250 miles away in Misenum, so it would have taken some time to deliver the letters. But now they’re immortalised in history, which is why we can still read them today.

Before Twitter and text messaging, even before the telephone, the telegram was really the quickest way of sending messages to people across long distances.

Also, philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir were the intellectual power couple of the 20th century and they wrote to each other consistently throughout their relationship, sharing ideas, stories and thoughts. And writing them down meant they were better considered and clearer, which helped their face-to-face conversations go deeper too.  

Ultimately pen friends often became close and intellectually valuable friendships, and letters are really just the non-electronic cousins of things like emails and Facebook messages.

Range of colourful envelopes

Tattling telegrams

Before Twitter and text messaging, even before the telephone, the telegram was really the quickest way of sending messages to people across long distances. But telegrams were quite expensive to send as they’d charge you for every word you wrote - so you’d probably do your best to avoid sending your friend an essay this way.

Whilst you were unlikely to form a friendship by telegram, some vitally important and world-changing messages were delivered this way. For example, Dr Crippen, an American-born homoeopathic doctor, was one of the first criminals to be convicted with the help of the telegram. Following the murder of his wife Cora at their home in London in January 1910, Dr Crippen and his lover escaped on a ferry to Canada - but they were spotted by the ship's captain, who sent a telegram to Scotland Yard just before the ship lost reception. A police officer then took a faster ship to Canada and arrested Dr Crippen on arrival! Boom.

Interestingly, the shortest telegram ever was from the Irish writer Oscar Wilde. He was living in Paris and he cabled his publisher in Britain to see how his new book was doing. The message simply read: ‘?’ And the publisher cabled back: ‘!’ Not much different from a quick emoji exchange really.

So, does friendship have to be face-to-face?

The methods might have changed, but the same principle still applies - you don’t have to be face-to-face with someone in order to have a friendship. The real question is about how meaningful those relationships are, and whether they’ll stay strong if they’re only online. What do you think?

Could online friendships be making you more lonely?

What kind of stuff do you share on facebook? And how often do you post? These things might be an indicator of how happy and fulfilled you are… or aren’t.

There are over 81 million fake profiles on Facebook.

There are over 81 million fake profiles on Facebook.

4 reasons introverts prefer online friends

If you find being with people quite tiring and need a good chunk of time to yourself each day to recharge, you might be what's known as an introvert. (And even if you’re not, you probably know someone who is.) So having a lot of friends online can be a good way to interact with others without the pressure that real-life conversations can bring...

  1. Distance 
    1. Chatting online means no eye contact, no physical touch, no one watching you - it’s just you and your phone, curled up on the sofa or in your room. You can still get to know people but on your own terms. And when you’re tired of talking you can just switch off and take a break, without seeming rude. It also means that when you do have to go out into the real world, you’ve got more energy left and can make the most of those face-to-face interactions. 
  2. Control 
    1. When you’re talking with a real-life person you might feel tongue-tied, or worried that you’re going to say the wrong thing. But chatting online takes that pressure away because you can choose when to reply to a text or a Facebook message, so you’ve got time to think before you write. And what about those super-frustrating times when someone says something to you and you’re lost for words - then you think of a witty comeback about an hour later! Online, you have all the time you need to think of the perfect reply. And if you don’t want to talk, then you don’t even have to reply at all.
  3. Anonymity 
    1. If you’re quite a private person, you probably want to be able to control which bits of your life you share with people and when - especially when it comes to your feelings. But when you’re talking face-to-face this isn’t so easy - you might blush if you’re asked something embarrassing, or cry if a friend is unkind to you. But if someone says something mean or strange online, your face can react however it wants to - they’ll never know. A simple emoji will keep your true feelings completely anonymous.
  4. Choice
    1. Striking up a conversation with a new friend can be hard - who knows how much you’ll have in common, and nothing’s worse than an awkward silence. But when you choose your online friends you can look at the kind of things they like and what they post or Tweet about before you talk to them. This gives you conversational ammunition, so you don’t ever need to run out of things to say. (Plus you don’t have to worry as much about looking silly in front of people who don’t think Star Wars is quite as cool as you do.) Having friendships online can be a really good way to give you confidence in talking with new people, as well as helping you choose friends that match you and your interests the best.

Can Facebook make you a friend-magnet?

When we go online, there’s no limit to the number of people who can read our posts, respond to our Tweets, game with us, or comment on our Instagram pics. So surely that means we can gain a load more friends online than in real-life - right?


The numbers definitely look promising - Facebook has around 1.86 billion users around the world, with 500,000 new users joining every day. That’s 6 new profiles every second! And every day 300 million people are posting and Liking stuff on Instagram, 150 million people are using SnapChat and 120,000 new people sign up to Tumblr.

So that’s a lot of potential friends to pick from - way more than we could ever meet in everyday life. And interacting with them online - through Likes, shares, Tweets, messages, posts, etc - is a lot quicker and simpler than a real-life chat.

But research actually shows that despite this time-saving approach to friendship, people don’t generally have any more friends online than they do in real life. In both contexts, the average number of friends we all have is 150.

So why isn’t the internet helping us get a bigger social circle?

Dunbar’s number

First off, let’s examine this 150 number more closely.

An evolutionary psychology professor at the University of Oxford, called Robin Dunbar, has done a lot of work studying all kinds of human societies and groups. And he’s worked out that most human networks are made of up layers - like an onion.

Your best friends are right at the core, then you’ve got a layer of close friends, then a layer of regular friends and finally a layer of people that you like but are less emotionally connected to. Anything beyond that is just people you sort-of know - like you’d recognise them walking down the street and might stop for a quick chat, but you wouldn’t go out of your way to meet up with them. And you wouldn’t really call them a friend, they’d just be an acquaintance.

A group of friends walking and smiling

When it comes to the numbers, Professor Dunbar’s studies have shown that most people have an average of 5 best friends in their inner circle, then about 10 more close friends, then another 35 regular friends, followed by another 115 in that outer layer. (And each layer contains the friends in the layers before it - so that makes the totals in each layer 5, 15, 50 and 150.)

Interestingly these numbers aren’t just true about friendships - they seem to be found in lots of different contexts. Especially that outer layer of 150. The typical size of an ancient hunter-gatherer society was around 150, many small communities in 18th-century England were roughly that size and it’s the average number of soldiers in most military companies. So it definitely seems like a magic number where people and friendships are concerned.

But why 150?

It seems to be about two things: our brains and our time.

The studies that Professor Dunbar and others have done - both on humans and on animals - show that the number of friends a being can have is linked to the size of key regions of their prefrontal cortex. That’s the area of the brain that deals with ‘mentalising’, which is the process by which we make sense of ourselves and each other - a key part of friendship. So we’re limited by how much mental space we have for making and keeping friends.

A recent study of Facebook users showed that people felt that only 27.6% of their Facebook Friends were really ‘genuine’ (close) friends. 

We’re also limited physically - by time. Between school or work, sleeping, eating, doing homework, etc, we only have so much space in our days for seeing friends. And if you try and spread yourself too thinly you end up having a much lower quality of relationship, and maybe even giving up on some friendships altogether.

Because we’re more developed than other species (like the monkeys and apes, whose upper layer of friends is only 50), we humans have tried to fix that second issue a bit, by coming up with ways we can meaningfully engage with more than one person at once. For example through laughter - a great group bonding mechanism. Or things like music, which can be enjoyed by multiple people at a time and can be extremely helpful in creating bonds - like at a great gig.

What about online?

In theory, then, social media should work like those other time-saving habits - meaning we can connect with more people at a time and so overall have a greater number of friends. And often it might feel like we’ve achieved that, when we glance at the number of followers, Friends or Likes we have online and see how many different people we’re connected to.

But anthropologists have discovered that, when you look closely, our online behaviour actually just looks like pretty similar to our real-life interactions - particularly when it comes to those 5, 15, 50, 150 groupings. A recent study of Facebook users showed that people felt that only 27.6% of their Facebook Friends were really ‘genuine’ (close) friends. And since the average Facebook user has 155 Friends, that’s just over 40 people - almost the same as that ‘regular friends’ layer. The study also showed that the majority of people’s postings were always to the same 3-15 people - again mirroring those real-life 5 and 15 inner layers.

So it seems that the 150 number isn’t just about a physical limit of how many people you can spend time with, which would mean we could invent some way around it - like social media. It’s about how many people you’ve genuinely got enough emotional and mental space to emotionally invest in - and that stays the same whether you’re online or offline.

In a recent study of 12-17 year olds 53% said they’d deleted comments from others on their profile, 45% had removed their tag from unflattering photos and 59% had deleted or edited past posts.

In a recent study of 12-17 year olds 53% said they’d deleted comments from others on their profile, 45% had removed their tag from unflattering photos and 59% had deleted or edited past posts.

The flip-side of friendships: cyberbullying vs. real-life bullying

We’ve been exploring whether it’s better to have friends online or in real life - but what about enemies? How can cyberbullying be different?


You can be bullied anytime, anywhere

If you’re being bullied in the real-world, there’s a limit to where your tormentors can reach you. Once you’re home you can shut the door. Or if you absolutely had to, you could move schools, or even to a different town. But there’s no such escape online, cyberbullies can get to you, wherever you are in the world - as long as you’re logged on, you’re in the firing line. Also, nasty comments made about you online can be seen by larger numbers of people, making it feel worse and adding to the humiliation.

You might never know who’s bullying you

In the real world, you usually know your bullies. In the virtual world, you don’t have to know them and they don’t have to know you - they don’t even have to live near you. One research study with a group of 11-16-year-olds showed that more than half of them had been upset or bothered by someone online who they didn’t actually know in real life.

This finding could have been down to the 'online disinhibition effect'- a theory which suggests that- for various reasons- people sometimes behave differently online to what they would do in person. For example, a bully might feel that they can say whatever they like about you as they can hide behind the computer screen and avoid getting into trouble for their actions. That said, this theory also suggests there might be a greater chance that an outsider reading the comments, could stand up to the bully as the internet might give them more confidence to fight against what's wrong.  

The video below offers some of the reasons why we have 'internet trolls'- people who deliberately try to start online arguments or upset others by posting offensive, controversial or off-topic comments:  

It can happen more easily, even by accident

“I wouldn't say it was bullying. It's a bit more banter, like. It's not really too serious." That’s how one teenager describes the ‘baiting out videos’ that he regularly posts online (videos that name and shame individuals (supposedly) taking part in certain activities with negative connotations). But what he thinks of as harmless fun is actually cyberbullying. In real life, you could more easily set people straight and let them know they’re upsetting you. But online, people are less likely to realise the effect their behaviour is having. And what they might see as a bit of gentle teasing can, in fact, have a lasting and damaging impact - especially when others jump on the bandwagon.


Cyberbullying isn’t physical

A cyberbully can’t physically harm you - it’s a war of petty, spiteful words (or maybe images) that they’re resorting to. That doesn’t mean that they can’t cause damage, but the one thing you don’t have to worry about is them lying in wait for you ready to dish out a kicking. As the old saying reminds us - sticks and stones do sometimes break bones! But not through the internet.

It can fizzle out quickly

In some ways, it’s a lot easier to ignore a cyberbully as there’s no physical presence to deal with. And all bullies - virtual or real-life - want a reaction and enjoy an audience. But you don’t have to respond to the things they say and do online - you can just switch off your phone. No reaction + no audience = no point. In a world of shortening attention spans, people move on quickly if they’re not entertained - so ignoring a bully’s efforts can stop them in their tracks.

You can prove cyberbullying

When someone cyberbullies you, you’ve got all the evidence right there in black and white pixels, which makes it a lot easier to do something about it. Take Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones who suffered racial abuse on Twitter at the hands of blogger Milo Yiannopoulos. She retweeted the abusive posts, asking for help from the Twitter bosses - and when they saw what was going on they permanently banned her bully. End of. Not everyone will get such a big response from so high up, but you still have options. You can block people and/or report any kind of abuse. And if all else fails you can shut down your accounts, change your phone number, or get a new email address. Drastic, but better than moving house.

One in five teenagers say they’ve experienced cyberbullying at some point in their lives and with the increasing numbers of social media accounts we all have, that’s (sadly) no surprise. But at the end of the day, whether it’s happening online or offline, bullying always has the power to destroy a person’s confidence and cause lots of hurt and emotional damage. When you look at it that way, it’s not so clear-cut whether a virtual or a real-life bully is worse.