Facebook can provide safety net for bereaved people

Researchers examined if, similar to certain brain cells creating new circuits when others are destroyed, social networks worked the same way for people dealing with grief.

By Amy Wallace
New research shows Facebook can function as a safety net for the bereaved. Photo by Unsplash/PixaBay
New research shows Facebook can function as a safety net for the bereaved. Photo by Unsplash/PixaBay

April 25 (UPI) -- Researchers at Northeastern University have uncovered insight into how social networks adapt to significant losses, which may help in the grieving process.

William R. Hobbs, an expert in computational social science at Northeastern, collaborated with Facebook data scientist Moira Burke on the study and found that close friends of a deceased person increased their interactions with one another on the social network by 30 percent immediately following a death.


The research found that most of the interactions faded slightly in the months after the death and ultimately stabilized to the same level of interaction as before the death up to two years after the loss.

"Most people don't have very many friends, so when we lose one, that leaves a hole in our networks as well as in our lives," Hobbs said in a press release. "We expected to see a spike in interactions among close friends immediately after the loss, corresponding with the acute grieving period. What surprised us was that the stronger ties continued for years. People made up for the loss of interacting with the friend who had died by increasing interactions with one another."


The study compared de-identified, aggregate counts of monthly interactions in roughly 15,000 Facebook networks with similar friendship networks of Facebook users in which someone had died.

Researchers used sophisticated data counters and computer analysis to compare monthly interactions such as wall posts, comments and photo tags of the 15,000 Facebook networks comprised of 770,000 people that had had a loss to similar interactions of roughly 30,000 Facebook networks comprised of 2 million people that had not had a loss.

The researchers discovered the deaths through California state vital records.

Researchers found that networks of young adults age 18 to 24 were more likely to recover than all other age groups studied, however, unexpected deaths resulted in larger increases in social interactions that did not differ by friends' ages.

Suicides were associated with reduced social-network recovery, though the researchers say they are unsure why.

"We didn't study the subjective experience of loss, or how people feel," Hobbs said. "We looked at recovery only in terms of connectivity. We also can't say for certain whether the results translate into closer friendships offline."

According to Hobbs, online social networks appear to function as a safety net.

The study was published in Nature Human Behavior.


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