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How many online friends do you have? Really?

The number of social network users, and the amount of time spent on social networking sites, continues to skyrocket. Now, 66% of all internet users are active on social networking sites – including 86% of users ages 18-29, and perhaps more surprisingly, 34% of internet users ages 65 and older[1].

Among social media sites, Facebook takes the lions share with analysts predicting the company will reach 1 billion users worldwide[2] and 143 million users in the US[3] by the end of August, 2012. Facebook also dominates the amount of time users spend on social sites with close to 7 hours a month, or about 13 minutes a day.

With all this time spent sharing information and socializing online, some of the downsides of sharing have come to the forefront.

Awareness of the risks to personal privacy, security and safety online are increasing, and with this awareness users are responding by strengthening their privacy settings on social media sites and taking additional precautions about restricting the types of content shared.

Yet, one clear area of risk that isn’t well addressed is found within the sheer volume of ‘friends’ users are sharing their information, photos, moods, and content with.

As of February 2012 the average number of Facebook friends reached 318.5 among Millenials (adults between the ages of 18-34). For GenX users (ages 35-46), that average is 197.6 friends, and baby boomers (age 47-65) average 124.2 friends, according to the PEW Research Center’s American Life Project.

The problem with over-friending begins early

When youth, and some adults, first begin social networking they frequently believe that the more friends they have on their social sites the greater their status among their peers will be. This leads to inviting everyone they know – and often people they don’t know, or don’t even particularly like – to be friends.

As time passes, more friends get added, but pruning out people who are no longer friends or colleagues is often overlooked or avoided because of the potential for drama an ‘un-friending’ can cause. So though 56% of social networking users say they’ve unfriended someone[4], it is usually motivated by a particularly negative experience rather than the person actively managing and trimming their friends list.

Once a user has more people on their friends’ lists than they have truly trustworthy friends, the opportunity for misuse, oversharing, privacy trampling, and digital drama skyrocket. In fact, these are the leading causes for ending a friendship over something that happened on a social networking site. 15% of adults and 22% of teens say they have ended a friendship over something that happened on a social networking site, and 3% of adults and 8% of teens say they have gotten into a physical fight over something that was said on a social networking site.

Learning the difficult balancing act of managing your online ‘friends’ list takes practice, but a few simple guidelines can help:

  • It’s often easier to simply ignore a friend request than it is to unfriend. Just because someone ‘friends’ you does not mean you have to accept their request for contact. If the person isn’t someone you want to share your information and conversations with, don’t accept their invitation.
  • It’s easier to not ask someone to be your friend than it is to unfriend them. You do not have to invite all the people you know. You especially don’t have to invite people you don’t particularly like – and these are the very people who may be most likely to abuse your trust and privacy, or bully.
  • Pruning your friend’s list can fall more naturally at certain times. For example at the end of a school year, or at the start of a new school year where the other teens you hang out with naturally change, or when shifting jobs. People are less likely to feel slighted when there is a natural point of change.
  • The instant a relationship turns sour. If a friendship or relationship begins to go bad, you can significantly reduce the amount of digital drama by quickly moving to sever the online friendship. This blocks the person from repurposing your information, being nasty on your pages, or participating in your conversations.

There is no magic number for how many friends you, or your teen, should have. Instead the right number should be a calculation of the purpose and kinds of information you share through your pages, the number of real friends you have, and your level of risk and drama tolerance.

Keep in mind that it is the quality of your social connections rather than quantity of connections that will make your online experience richer.



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