You may be familiar with the phrase ‘Dunbar’s Number’, named after the anthropologist Robin Dunbar and coined in the 1990s. Dunbar’s number refers to the probable limit to the number of social relationships a person can maintain effectively at one time, and is an interesting concept in the Internet age where many people’s online ‘friends lists’ can number in the high hundreds. What would you think Dunbar’s studies into human brain size and social grouping revealed to be the approximate maximum number of sustainable social connections? 300? 500? Maybe 900?
The Quality of the Links
In fact, Dunbar asserted that the actual number is much lower; roughly 150. Whether you agree with him or not, it does raise the question of the quality of the links between the people we interact with in the online space. If we have 350 friends linked to our social media account, are we really able to count them all as friends, even if that is what the social media platform names them? In my personal life I have met people who have described feeling quite lonely, even though their mobile device often chirps with a status update from one of their many online connections.
Buzzing Mobile Phone
The Web is certainly great at bringing people together, and can allow people on opposite sides of the globe to engage with each other through a video call that otherwise wouldn’t be able to stay in touch. For a growing grandchild and loving grandparent this link is invaluable, and it is sometimes easy to forget that only 25 years ago that video call would not have been technologically possible. The flipside of this tech revolution, however, is that a lengthy friends list can sometimes mask a different situation that is easily hidden and which can be difficult to admit to. In my professional work as a therapeutic counsellor, I encounter some people who feel alone in our crowded and noisy world, unheard by all those that appear on their sizeable friends list. Although they have the buzzing mobile phone or tablet computer updating them on the doings of everyone they are linked with, when it comes to sharing difficult feelings or worrying thoughts, they can find that they lack that all important deeper connection.
Dr. Carl Rogers, founder of the person-centred approach to psychotherapy, suggested that it is only through a trusting and meaningful, deeper relationship that positive personal growth can occur (* see footnote for reference). A conversation with a professional counsellor, bound as it is by the safeguards of confidentiality and privacy, is often experienced by the client as liberating and useful. We all need someone to talk things through with, and sometimes broadcasting our personal challenges publicly online is not an ideal solution. Working on the relationships we have before our very eyes, either with our family or the neighbour with whom we never seem to get past the short “good morning”, can bring benefits that may tempt us to leave checking the latest social media notifications until later.
(* = The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change. Journal of Consulting Psychology, Vol. 21, No. 2, 1957, p95-103)
~ Rob Oglesby MBACP B.A. (Hons) BSc | Ashwood Therapy
[Ashwood Therapy provides a discreet, confidential and professional online counselling service by encrypted video call, live instant messaging and secure email. More details, including tips on wellbeing and information on current counselling session pricing, can be found at http://www.ashwoodtherapy.com/]