Teenagers still only communicate with a small number of people despite having hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, according to a recent Oxford study.
Young people were found to operate an unconscious system of ‘one in, one out’ policies such that their communications patterns and number of close friends remain the same even who they socialise with changes.
Despite new students typically meeting large numbers of new people, the group with which they actively communicate averages at only 150.
Dr Feliz Reed-Tsochas, a co-author and lecturer Said Business School, said: “Although social communication is now easier than ever, it seems that our capacity for maintaining emotionally close relationships is finite.
“At any point, individuals are able to keep up close relationships with only a small number of people, so that new friendships come at the expense of ‘relegating’ existing friends.”
The study ranked each participant’s group of friends in order of emotional closeness to the subject. Those top-ranked were found to receive a disproportionately large proportion of calls.
However, each subject’s pattern of communication remained stable, as they made the same number of calls to people whom they regarded as emotionally close, despite the individuals in their social network changing over time.
Robin Dunbar, fellow author and professor of evolutionary psychology at Magdalen, commented: “This builds on my earlier findings that humans have a very distinct social network size – 150 friends and family.
“In previous studies we have shown that this variation correlates with the size of the frontal lobes of the brain in particular and that people choose to distribute their social capital thickly among a few (typically introverts) or thinly among many (typically extraverts) but that the amount of social capital (time, emotional energy, etc) that everyone has is probably pretty much the same.”
Oxford students felt that their experience mirrored the findings of the study. Ben Jones, a first year historian, said: “Most people simply don’t have enough time to maintain a large network of close friends. I can already see my friendship group changing as a result of going to university, but I don’t think it has really got any bigger.”
Joel Hide, a Fresher at Keble, agreed with the results, but quipped: “I find it quite depressing to think every time I make a new friend at uni, there goes one of my home friends.”
Others, however, were less convinced. Ben Crome, a history student at Balliol, said: “I think it depends on the university. The absurd demands on our time here probably does mean that we lose touch with our ‘home friends’.
“Then again, that assumes they haven’t simply been looking for any opportunity to be rid of us,” he added.
The study, entitled “The Persistence of Social Signatures in Human Communication”, used mobile phone data to track changes in the communication networks of 24 students over 18 months as they made the transition from school to university or work.
The paper has been updated since its initial issue in 2012 to take account of the most recent findings.