College students who want to be rich with lifelong friends need to invest time and seek out opportunities to develop their interests now, says a Purdue University communication expert.
“Maintaining quality long-term friendships is difficult today because people move frequently and there are many technological and media distractions,” says Glenn Sparks, a professor of communication who studied the 19-year friendships of a group of 1983 college graduates. “The geographic and personal distance between people continues to grow, and there are some harmful effects for those who lack quality relationships. Friends are essential because they provide emotional stability in a person’s life.
“Making friends is like managing a bank account. You must make investments, and it is never too early to start.”
Sparks was part of a research team that followed the friendships of 32 pairs of same-sex and 13 pairs of male-female best friends from 1983 to 2002. The initial quality and closeness of their friendships were measured in different ways, including how well they played a game that assessed levels of communication and understanding. Follow-up studies took place in 1987 and 2002. Sixty-four of the individuals, including at least one friend from 38 of the pairs, participated in the 2002 study.
On average, the participants in this study moved six times during 19 years, and the typical distance between friends was 895 miles. In addition to geographic distance, friendships also were affected by romantic relationships, careers and children.
“The long-term friendships that showed up in this study provide a sense of a shared history that can be a rarity in today’s changing environment,” Sparks says. “Friends from our youth anchor us in this age of constant mobility. When something good or bad happens, pick up the phone to share the news with a close friend. Every time you do this it reinforces the friendship, and that can add up over the years.”
Sparks said he is concerned that today’s college students’ emerging friendships will be influenced by technological distractions, such as the Internet, television and online games. Some college students may not be as likely to meet new people because they are using the Internet to communicate with friends at home.
“Technology offers great capabilities to keep in touch with people, but it also can keep us from really getting to know someone,” he says.
And for those no longer in college, Sparks says there is indirect evidence from this study that lapsed friendships may be restarted successfully even after a lull in communication for years.
“Even if you have not spoken to a friend for three years, get back in touch,” he says. “You may find a friendship that will last your whole life, and that is a great thing.”
This research was published in the summer edition of the journal Personal Relationships. Sparks’ co-authors are Andrew M. Ledbetter, an assistant professor at Ohio University, and Em Griffin, professor emeritus at Wheaton College.
Sparks’ research is supported by the Department of Communication in the College of Liberal Arts.