Research highlight

Social networks resilient to death

Nature Human Behaviour

April 25, 2017

Online social networks heal and rebuild following the death of a central member, reports a paper published online this week in Nature Human Behaviour. The study demonstrates how individuals change their interaction patterns to support one another during a time of grief.

The effects of bereavement on the structure of families' social support networks have been studied for decades and this research has been important in understanding social isolation and the role of support networks. However, little is known about the reaction of friends' social networks.

William Hobbs and Moira Burke use online social network data to study the impact that loss has on human social structures at a scale not previously possible. The authors conducted an analysis of 15,000 anonymized Facebook networks that experienced a bereavement. By analysing the traffic of interactions between members both before and after the loss, the authors show that, rather than decreasing, interactions between other network members around the decedent increased following a loss and stayed higher for at least two years. The effect was especially pronounced in networks of 18-24 year olds.

In an accompanying News & Views, Robert Bond writes: “The increase in interaction in bereaved networks suggests that people are changing their interaction patterns in ways that are likely to provide support to those who are experiencing grief”.

doi: 10.1038/s41562-017-0092

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