It’s the Girl Scout mantra: Make new friends but keep the old. 

However, according to UNLV communication studies professor and researcher Natalie Pennington, that may not be the best advice for your mental health.

Pennington studies how private topics become public on social networking platforms and the resulting impact on relationships. Her research looks at how users of social media build and maintain relationships, the potential benefits and harms associated with technology use, and social support and grieving online. 

To that end, we had her weigh in on a holiday created in 2010 by late-night host and former UNLV student Jimmy Kimmel — National Unfriend Day (Nov. 17).

Read on to see what Pennington says about social media’s link to health; our reluctance to unfriend, mute, or block acquaintances; and tips on navigating onerous online friendships.

What are your thoughts on the premise behind National Unfriend Day? 

I think Jimmy is right that we could benefit from shrinking our social networks a bit. 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: 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. You would be impressed by the responses you get if you posted something like, “I’m thinking of getting a plant for my office. Does anyone have recommendations?” So, there is 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 is most likely to unfriend someone on social media?

Life events tend to spur large-scale friending and unfriending patterns. For example, when you graduate college and move to a new place, you add people as you meet them. But, my research with student focus groups has found that as they enter their last semester, they tend to tighten up their network — unfriending old classmates they don’t expect to see again. This intuitively makes sense when you think about the general process of aging. There’s a cool study that talks about how after age 25, your social circle begins to shrink and the people you want to hang out with — and have time to hang out with — gets smaller. As a result, people are slightly more willing to unfriend someone. 

What are the most common reasons people hit the unfriend button?

The biggest reasons people tend to unfriend someone are: they post too often, engage in oversharing, or post things we disagree with (like politics). But what can really tip the scale in favor of unfriending is if you don’t feel like you’re close with that person. So, let’s say, if my best friend posted too much, it may drive me crazy, but they’re my best friend and I won’t unfriend them. But, if one of my coworkers or classmates posted too much, I would have an easier time clicking that “unfriend” button. 

Why do people hesitate to unfriend?

There are two big reasons why people hesitate to unfriend someone on Facebook. First, is we want to save face: what if they find out I unfriended them and confront me about it? What will I say? This leads people to simply “hide” someone in their newsfeed. With this approach, you get to act like you’re not Facebook friends by never seeing their posts, but as far as they’re concerned, you are still seeing their content and are buddies.

The second big reason people hesitate to unfriend someone on Facebook is the “what if” concept: What if they can help me out later? I’m not close with someone from high school anymore, but you know, what if in the future I need information about something that they’re an expert on? Similarly, if you’re not ready to let go of a breakup, you might stay connected to your ex because “what if we get back together”? As a result, people tend to keep their networks bigger, holding onto many weak-tie relationships that could turn into something more later. 

Is social media bad for your health?

Research suggests that social media use can affect our mental health. I’ve noticed in recent interviews I’ve conducted that people who are already prone to depression felt that maintaining a large social network could deepen that depression as they engaged in social comparison with their network. They felt relief in backing away from social media entirely, as it forced them to take time for themselves. The example of romantic relationships also fits well here: your ability to “move on” after a breakup is stunted by maintaining that connection on social media, and can have adverse effects on your mood and overall health. It can lead to unhealthy rumination.  

Do politics factor in the decision to unfriend someone?

Politics is one where people get defensive easily and the chance of unfriending in the moment over a disagreement on a status update is definitely high. This is especially true if they aren’t close to you. Right now, the political climate is increasingly polarized, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see this phenomenon increase as the Democratic primary season kicks off in 2020. The thing is, we don’t use politics as the initial meter for accepting a friend request. So, when we later find out someone has views that are different than ours and they are really passionate about that on Facebook, it can be a surprise that’s hard for some people to handle — and they unfriend that person. 

How do you know when to unfriend vs. tolerate a social media contact? 

Jimmy Kimmel suggests that to decide who to unfriend, we should cut whomever doesn’t respond to our post seeking volunteers to help move. I’d actually encourage you to think about it the other way around — look at your friends list and ask, “Who would I help move?” And if you think you’d be willing, it is probably worth keeping them around.

Otherwise, I encourage people to move beyond those two big things that hold us back and make us keep a weak-tie relationship. The chances that you will run into someone you unfriended and have to justify your choice is pretty small. Similarly, there are a lot of ways to get information, and you can always contact that person later on through email. Our relationships can have a lot of power in keeping us happy and healthy both physically and mentally, so be mindful in curating your online connections. I also recognize there are some relationships we can’t really end, so recognizing the benefit of the “hide” or “mute” option for, say, that cousin or coworker you want to keep connected with is another reasonable option to help keep you sane.

My last bit of advice broadly is to just keep in check the benefits and drawbacks of using sites like Facebook. They can keep us connected to a lot of people, but if we don’t make the effort to communicate with that network, what is really the point of keeping those relationships around? Especially if there are potential adverse effects on our health, it is worth dialing back our overall use of social media.