Social media keep long-distance friendships alive, study shows

Baby boomers: Leave high school friends for college, reconnect decades later at the reunion.

Generation X: Leave high school friends for college, reconnect 10 years later on Facebook.

Millennials: Leave high school friends for college, reconnect days later on Facebook, Twitter or text.

Instant-messaging tools are reinventing the way young Canadians navigate their relationships, allowing them to port their friends almost anywhere in the world.

A new study plumbs this phenomenon and finds that while some things remain the same – distance still matters in a digital society, with university students being more likely to have frequent contact with those nearby – others have changed: namely, that geography is no longer the deal-breaker it once was.

“Youth today are really taking their long-distance friendships with them,” says co-author Anabel Quan-Haase, an associate professor in the department of information and media studies and department of sociology at Western University in London, Ont.

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“They’re not in touch as often, but they’re still sharing the most important pieces of information.”

Alongside researchers Gustavo Mesch and Ilan Talmud, both of the University of Haifa, Quan-Haase investigated the instant-messaging habits of nearly 800 students from Canada and Israel. The average participant age from the former country was 21, while the average age among the latter group was 25.

Despite the two nations having demonstrably different outlooks – previous research has shown that in Canada individualism and self-reliance are more prized, whereas Israeli society is more group-oriented – the results were strikingly similar, suggesting there’s something universal about the ways in which young people use social media to nurture relationships.

Across both groups, geographic closeness increased the frequency with which people connected via instant messaging, regardless of the intimacy of the relationship. And among Canadians in particular, the longevity of a friendship positively predicted the number of topics discussed – a measure of the relationship’s depth.

“They could potentially be in touch with anyone across the country. But we see here, clearly, that most communication happens locally and is grounded in a physical space,” says Quan-Haase, whose study appears in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

“But for those who keep in touch with someone at a distance, it’s because they have a very close relationship. So the conversation becomes richer in terms of the number of topics talked about. This continued connection over time and space greatly facilitates re-establishing the (in-person) friendship at a later point.”

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Quan-Haase says the take-away is that social media-based communication is not as superficial as often assumed, and may in fact be fundamental to maintaining social ties among young people as they cope with separation, new challenges and the complexities of growing up.