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Don’t be quick to click on National Unfriend Day, UNLV expert says

Today is National Unfriend Day.

Never heard of it? Neither had UNLV communication studies assistant professor Natalie Pennington before this semester, even though she’s been neck deep in researching how people build — and end — relationships on social media.

Pennington recommends a more nuanced approach to unfriending than the one advocated by talk show host and former UNLV student Jimmy Kimmel, who launched National Unfriend Day in 2010. His approach? Ask your “friends” on social media to help you move. Then “unfriend” anyone who doesn’t show up.

Pennington flips the script by suggesting that people ask themselves who they would help move. This provides a good clue as to who is a valued friend. But unlike Kimmel, Pennington believes there are reasons for keeping in social media contact with people who aren’t close friends.

“I think Jimmy is right that we could benefit from shrinking our social networks a bit,” Pennington states in a post on a UNLV web page. “In one of my recent studies, I found that the average number of Facebook relationships in the sample was 459 friends — but that ranged from just a handful to over 2,500. Are we really able to maintain a network of 2,500 people?

“Part of Jimmy’s justification for shrinking our network is that we aren’t close with most of our Facebook friends. And he’s not wrong,” she said. “In my study sample, over half of the relationships were weak ties. But there are also some benefits to weak-tie relationships. They’re the ones who can really help us with obtaining more diverse information.

“There’s kind of a push-pull there. You can learn a lot from a big network. But it’s also a lot of work, and not everyone has the time or mental capacity to do that.”

Who gets unfriended

In her research, Pennington has found that the most common reason for unfriending or unfollowing is that someone is posting too frequently, followed by oversharing personal information.

“People increasingly post private information in a public forum,” Pennington said in an interview. “If I post something that’s only meant for a small subset of people, suddenly I’m oversharing with them.”

Somewhat surprisingly, Pennington has found that “children posts” prompt more unfriending than religious or political posts.

If someone is posting “a bunch about their child’s bodily functions, you’re probably going to cut them,” especially if you have a weak connection to them, she said.

Although people sometimes become annoyed with their social media contacts, Pennington has uncovered a deep reluctance to actually unfriend anyone.

“It’s a very active choice to hit the unfriend button,” she said. And unfriending on social media happens jarringly fast, unlike in life, when the dissolution of a friendship is a slower, more natural process.

People also are afraid that unfriending someone could spur a confrontation, or that the person might be someone who could be helpful down the line. Instead of unfriending, most people will simply “hide” someone in their news feed, so they don’t see the person’s posts, Pennington has found.

But it may be time to consider unfriending when there is a “blurring of boundaries” with work connections or a need to move on from a romantic relationship, she said.

Better off without

Recently Pennington has been interviewing students who have quit social media entirely, and “they’re so much happier,” she said.

For someone prone to anxiety or depression, “seeing all these people talking to each other and engaging in fun activities, that can increase that mental issue that’s already there.”

For a person struggling with loneliness, “just scrolling your news feed for two hours” may not be beneficial.

“Instead, maybe you start talking to someone, you meet someone,” she said. “Isn’t it cool to be talking to a stranger?”

But overall, Pennington said, unfriending deserves serious thought.

“Our friendships can have a lot of power in keeping us healthy and happy both physically and mentally,” she said, “so be mindful in curating your online connections.”

Contact Mary Hynes at mhynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0336. Follow @MaryHynes1 on Twitter.

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