How Your College Friendships Help You – Or Don’t

How do friendship networks work? Book Lin, CC BY

Kristy Hamilton 28 Dec 2016, 09:58

The Conversation

College students spend a tremendous amount of time with their friends. One estimate suggests that the average college student spends only 15 hours a week in class but 86 hours a week with his or her friends.

But how much do we understand about the role friendships play and how they influence students both academically and socially?

In my recent book “Connecting in College: How Friendship Networks Matter for Academic and Social Success,” I analyzed friendship networks. My research shows students create friendship networks that influence them in different ways.

Friends can motivate and support students, but friends can also pull them down academically. The important thing is to be aware of the role of these friendship networks – not just of the role of friends, but of their connections with each other as well.

How networks influence us

We all know how important social networks can be in our lives – they can impact our health, happiness, wealth, emotions and even weight. Indeed, as social scientists Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler describe in their recent book, “Connected,” social networks play a role in everything that people “feel, think, and do.”

One important part of social networks is the connections. We can be tied to people in many ways, including family, friends, coworkers or less intense connections.

For example, some four decades ago, sociologist Mark Granovetter showed the importance of “weak ties” – that is, connections with people we do not even know well, who are mere acquaintances – in finding a job. His work was important in showing that it’s not just having someone in your network but the type of tie that matters.

So, we know that social networks can be beneficial and that not all people gain these benefits. Rather than focusing on the vast connections among friends’ friends’ friends, like Christakis and Fowler, I took a more in-depth look at a smaller number of connections.

I focused on a person’s friends and the connections between friends. In doing so, I found three network types, each of which came with particular benefits and potential costs.

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