Your most obnoxious Facebook friends are probably popular in real life: study

The results of a new British study suggest that Facebook users are less likely to unfriend people who are jerks online if they're "socially popular" offline.

Study suggests Facebook users are hesitant to unfriend digital jerks if they're 'socially popular' offline

The results of a new British study suggest that Facebook jerks are less likely to be unfriended if they're popular in real life, similar to how Regina George maintained the loyalty of her friends in Mean Girls despite constantly insulting them. (Paramount Pictures/Associated Press)

If you have a Facebook account, chances are you've also experienced the regret of accepting a friend request from someone who fills your newsfeed with obnoxious, inflammatory or straight up offensive posts.

We've all been there. Heck, judging by how many people gripe about the "ignorant" and "stupid" things their contacts share each day, a lot of us still are.

But why? 

The findings of a new study out of Nottingham Trent University in the U.K. suggest that Facebook users may be inclined to put up with bullying in their network for much the same reason they did so in high school — because those bullies are popular.

"The social repercussions of unfriending someone reach far beyond the boundaries of the online network," said Nottingham's Sarah Buglass, while discussing the study at a British Psychological Society conference this week.

"People don't want to risk causing offline tension with their friends, family members or colleagues by disconnecting them from their online lives," she continued. "Remaining online friends with troublemakers appears to be a social necessity for some."

The social repercussions of unfriending someone reach far beyond the boundaries of the online network- Sarah Buglass, Nottingham University Trent

To reach this conclusion, Buglass and her research team analyzed a total of 5,113 individual online relationships from the perspective of 52 people ranging in age from 13 to 45.

The participants were presented with 100 randomly selected contacts from their own Facebook "friends" list and asked to rate them on such things as relational closeness, online disagreements they've had with that contact, and online disagreements they've witnessed between the contact and others.

Researchers also asked how frequently the participant communicated with each randomly selected Facebook friend both online and off.

'Online troublemakers' get a pass if they're cool

The resulting paper, entitled Looking for trouble: Characteristics and consequences of provocateurs on online social networks, reveals that people who were jerks on Facebook (or "online troublemakers," as they're referred to in the study) tended to be among the most "socially popular" contacts participants had offline.

"Facebook users appear to be harbouring known online troublemakers on their Facebook networks," reads a statement by Buglass, who has studied Facebook extensively from the lens of psychology in recent years. "While some were not averse to reporting the online indiscretions of others to the service provider, many more choose to merely ignore them."

"It appears that they don't want to communicate with the troublemakers online for risk of damaging their own reputation," she explained. "But at the same time, they don't appear to want to unfriend them either."

While the study itself was relatively small in its sample size, the results appear to reflect a common sentiment among Facebook users who – despite wanting to – fear the repercussions of unfriending annoying family members, colleagues, or people in their social circles.

The study also found that online disagreements were more frequent among those aged 19 to 21 than any other age group.

According to a Twitter direct message Buglass sent to, gender was a factor too. Young women who participated were more likely to report abusive behaviour, for instance, while young men were more likely to engage in it.

"According to our results, males appeared to be more prone to online conflict," she said.


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