If you're a fan of periodically cleansing your Facebook friend list, a new study suggests you might want to think twice before you click that unfriend button: The negative effects of giving someone the axe online appear to extend into real life.
“People think social networks are just for fun,” Christopher Sibona, a doctoral student at the University of Colorado Denver Business School and the study's lead author, said in a Jan. 4 press release. “But in fact what you do on those sites can have real world consequences.”
As for what kinds of consequences, Sibona's research found that 40 percent of survey respondents said they would avoid a person who unfriended them on Facebook if they saw him or her in real life. Another 10 percent said they weren't sure what they'd do in such a situation, and 50 percent said they would not avoid the person.
Women were more likely to avoid those who had unfriended them, but the results didn't suggest why that might be the case.
Based on 582 responses collected through Twitter, the study showed that various factors influence how people handle being unfriended. For example, when the person who had unfriended someone vocalized that decision to others, it seemed to worsen the rejection experienced by the person on the receiving end and made that unfriended person more likely to steer clear of the former Facebook friend.
“Talking to someone is a public declaration that the friendship is over," Sibona said in the release.
Other circumstances that might affect a person's reaction to being unfriended included geographical distance between the unfriender and the unfriended, if the unfriended person believed the slight happened as the result of offline behavior, and how the person who was unfriended felt about the relationship.
"[U]nfriending may be viewed as a form of social exclusion,” Sibona said. “The study makes clear that unfriending is meaningful and has important psychological consequences for those to whom it occurs.”
In terms of why people unfriend on Facebook, Sibona's 2010 research explored this very issue. The New York Times covered his findings and noted that two of the most commonly cited reasons for unfriending have to do with the types of content friends post: People are most likely to get rid of friends who frequently post mundane updates, as well as friends who put up controversial posts that tackle topics like religion or politics.
That 2010 study also found that people who initiate the Facebook friendship in the first place are more likely to be unfriended later, more so than the ones who accept friendship requests on the social network.
Other data have shown that some Facebook users may limit time spent on the site if they feel the interactions they have there don't merit frequent usage. Earlier this week, the Pew Research Center released results of a study showing that more than half of Facebook's users have taken breaks from the site for several weeks at a time. "For some, the central calculation is how they spend their time," the co-author of that report, Lee Rainie, explained to ABC News. "For others, it's more of a social reckoning as they ask themselves, 'What are my friends doing and thinking and how much does that matter to me?'"
These new findings from Sibona and Pew come on the heels of another piece of research, released last month, that highlighted some of the negative ways in which Facebook can impact the emotions of its users. In January, German researchers found that a third of people sign out of Facebook feeling frustrated and envious of their friends.
Do you think being unfriended can have an impact on your real-world interactions? Do you think time spent on Facebook influences your emotions once you've signed off? Share your thoughts in the comments.