Few things unmoor us like losing a friend. But research doesn’t offer us definitive answers on how we handle loss on a social level, either digitally or in real life. Do our friend groups bounce back, break or something in between when someone passes away? That question is what makes a new study in Nature Human Behavior so fascinating: Using data from more than 45,000 social networks on Facebook (think of a network as you and all of your Facebook friends) that included more than 2.7 million people, researchers found that when a person died, their online friends and acquaintances became closer not just in the immediate aftermath, but for years to come.
It’s the first large-scale study to look at resilience and recovery after death in digital or offline social groups, according to the study’s press release.
Out of those 45,000-plus networks, a little more than 15,000 networks experienced a death. Immediately after the death of each network’s central figure (the person everyone else knew each other through), posts, comments and photo tags within the network spiked, particularly among the deceased’s close friends. Their online acquaintances started connecting more too, and not just in an immediate “I’m grieving; you’re grieving; let’s grieve together for right now” sense. Two years after their loss, close friends and acquaintances of the deceased still interacted more online than they did before the death.
We’re social creatures by nature and we lean on those around us when we’re in need. But interestingly, the study showed that people who lost someone didn’t seek out support from just anyone — they specifically sought out others who knew the person they lost. While connections with the deceased’s friends and acquaintances increased, the volume of digital interactions with people who didn’t appear to know the deceased stayed the same.
Social media isn’t always the healthiest aspect of our modern lives, but here, it allowed the researchers to compare pre- and post-death interactions within the networks — a rarity within bereavement research.
“It looks like the amount of increased interaction is equal to the amount of interaction lost with the person who died, and there’s a complete recovery of connectivity,” co-author William Hobbs, postdoctoral fellow at Northeastern University’s Network Science Institute, said in a press release.
This isn’t just a product of people craving digital interaction, either (i.e your friend decides to get off social media; you miss DMing them so you start DMing other people to fill the void.) Since the data sample included 30,000 networks that didn’t experience a death, Hobbs and his co-author, Moira Burke, a data scientist at Facebook, could compare whether deaths and deactivated accounts had the same effect on how networks interacted — deactivated accounts didn’t lead to greater connectivity within networks. That means people didn’t post, comment and tag as a way to maintain some self-imposed social interaction quota.
Social networks didn’t come together in every instance of death though. Sudden, unexpected deaths led to large spikes in connection within the group; suicides and drug overdoses didn’t prompt the same activity. Age made a difference, too. Networks with young adults (ages 18 to 24 in this case) were more likely to “recover” than those with older members, possibly because their generation grew up with social media as an emotional outlet, making them more comfortable with expressing grief online than older people, the researchers suggest in the study.
These findings are hopeful, but the study comes with some caveats. Our social media lives aren’t a perfect mirror of our offline behavior, and even though new photo tags definitely suggest that people are spending time together in real life, it’s possible that people’s in-person social interactions didn’t change. And of course, recovering connections doesn’t mean that things went back to the way they were before a friend died. As the study authors wrote, “Even with full connective recovery, the networks might have a changed ‘personality’ and function differently than before. The strengthened and newly active friendships did not replace the deceased.”
Still, in the face of something as heartbreaking as losing a friend, it’s comforting to know that the digital networks that are such a ubiquitous part of our lives can be there for us — even if it’s only happening online.