Previous research on the impact of online social networks suggest that they have a positive influence on happiness, but there’s a possible omitted variable bias involved. Larger online social networks might just be indicative of someone who would tend to have a larger network of friends anyway.
In this new NBER paper, a new Canadian dataset that covers both online and real world friendships offers a potential avenue to disentangle which one is actually more important (abstract):
Comparing the Happiness Effects of Real and On-line Friends
John F. Helliwell, Haifang Huang
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.
Basically what they found was that real life friendships matter the most – the effect of online social networks was negligible. Marriage or even dating act as effective potential substitutes, as does close family.
All those “likes”? Don’t count on’em.
Helliwell, John F. & Haifang Huang, "Comparing the Happiness Effects of Real and On-line Friends", NBER Working Paper No. 18690, January 2013