Peak friendship—data reveals when you'll be most popular

April 6, 2016 by Sarah Gomillion, The Conversation
Credit: Shutterstock

Making friends can seem easy when you're young. You encounter more new people and have more free time when you're first venturing out into the world than when you're more likely to be settled down with a steady job, a long-term partner and children.

New research suggests that our social networks may shrink from when we're about 25, after which we tend to lose more friends and acquaintances than we gain. But there's also an important difference between men and women, with men likely to make more contacts in their youth but lose them more rapidly as they age.

The study, carried out by scientists at Oxford and Aalto universities and published in Royal Society Open Science, looked at the phone call records of 3.2m users across in Europe. Collected in 2007, the data included the age and gender of the and the they called, how often they called each person and the length of each call.

Downhill from 25

The research showed that people aged 25 and under talked on their phones more than any other age group, which suggests that people might become less socially connected with age. This echoes other research on face-to-face social networks that suggests that our social networks shrink as we age.

The big life events that usually come with age, such as marriage and parenthood, lead people to invest more of their time socialising with just a few close family members and friends. Later in life, retirement, health issues and the death of partners and friends can leave people socially isolated, although this can sometimes inspire older people to engage more with their community through volunteering and religious participation.

But there could be other explanations for the fact that tend to call fewer friends on their mobiles. For one thing, use mobile technology far less than younger people, and the new study didn't capture data on landline phone calls and meeting in person.

Things also get more complex when you look at the data by gender. Among the under 40s, men contacted more people than women, but after 40 this gender difference reversed. And even though younger men made calls to more people than women, women spent more time talking to the people they called.

Again, these patterns mirror what we've learned from studying other kinds of social interaction, including face-to-face meetings. Women tend to invest more time in one-on-one interactions with others, whereas men tend to prefer interacting in groups. Our evolutionary roots may drive these differences: In our evolutionary history, females relied on their partners and a few key people to assist with child rearing, whereas males were attracted to larger groups that could help with hunting.

The other pattern that emerged from studying the records was in the people receiving the calls. Under 40s most often made calls to people their own age, while those aged 50 and older frequently called people a generation younger than them. The researchers speculated that this may be the result of older adults mostly using mobile phones to call their adult children - who may have even bought their parents their mobile phones.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, each person's most frequent and longest calls tended to be with an opposite-sex person who was the same age - most likely their partner. Taken together, these findings suggest that people were socialising the most with their partners and , particularly in older generations.

Changing communication

There are limits to what can tell us about people's relationships. In this case, the researchers could only speculate about whom participants were contacting based on their age and gender. Mobile phone use has changed dramatically in the years since these data was collected, and people increasingly use messaging apps such as WhatsApp to communicate. And even though people frequently socialise on their mobile phones, our screen time still only represents a small sliver of our social behaviour.

But this research does suggest that the way we use our mobile devices to connect with others changes throughout our lives, in much the same way other forms of social behaviour do. Humans have a strong need to seek connections with each other but we adapt the way we fulfil this need to our changing life circumstances.

Explore further: Team publishes research on friendship

More information: Kunal Bhattacharya et al. Sex differences in social focus across the life cycle in humans, Royal Society Open Science (2016). DOI: 10.1098/rsos.160097

Related Stories

Team publishes research on friendship

July 7, 2015

In the most inclusive study to date on friendship, Chapman University research looks at gender, age, and sexual orientation differences in the number of friends people rely on for support, to what extent they choose friends ...

Phone calls back evolutionary theories of gender

April 19, 2012

Women speak to their male partners less often as they grow older and turn their attention to a younger generation, according to an unusual study Thursday that tracked nearly two billion phone calls and text messages.

Communication with similar people stronger than believed

October 23, 2013

People's tendency to communicate with similar people is stronger than earlier believed, which restricts the flow of information and ideas in social networks. These are the findings that an Aalto University research group ...

Recommended for you

After a reset, Сuriosity is operating normally

February 23, 2019

NASA's Curiosity rover is busy making new discoveries on Mars. The rover has been climbing Mount Sharp since 2014 and recently reached a clay region that may offer new clues about the ancient Martian environment's potential ...

Study: With Twitter, race of the messenger matters

February 23, 2019

When NFL player Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice, the ensuing debate took traditional and social media by storm. University of Kansas researchers have ...

Researchers engineer a tougher fiber

February 22, 2019

North Carolina State University researchers have developed a fiber that combines the elasticity of rubber with the strength of a metal, resulting in a tougher material that could be incorporated into soft robotics, packaging ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Apr 06, 2016
cell phone usage as a proxy for number of friends is such a crappy metric, especially for men. total bull crap

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.