An analysis of 21 billion Facebook friendships shows that children from poorer families are likely to earn more later if they grow up in areas where they can befriend wealthier children.
It’s long been believed that rich friends can help children lift themselves out of poverty, but previous research had small sample sizes or limited data, according to two studies published Monday in the journal Nature.
So a team of US researchers turned to Facebook, the world’s largest social database, with its nearly three billion users, which offers unprecedented scale and precision, to study the problem.
They analyzed the privacy-protected data of 72 million US Facebook users between the ages of 25 and 44. The Facebook Friendships were used to represent real friendships.
Researchers used an algorithm to rank users by socioeconomic status, age, and region, among other things.
They then measured how much richer and poorer people interacted with each other and created the term “economic connectedness” to represent the proportion of a person’s friends who were above or below the average socioeconomic level.
They then compared this measure to previous research on children’s ability to escape poverty in each US ZIP code.
The results are “strikingly similar,” said Raj Chetty, an economist at Harvard University and lead author of the two studies.
The first paper showed that economic connectedness “is one of the strongest predictors of economic mobility that anyone has identified to date,” Chetty said.
The second paper sought to find out why children from wealthy or poor backgrounds are more likely to make friends in some areas than others.
– Let’s be friends –
The researchers found two main factors. One was how exposed the two groups were to one another — for example, whether they attend different high schools or live in separate neighborhoods.
Even when affluent and non-affluent students attended the same school, they still might not have hung out with each other — a factor the researchers dubbed friending bias.
According to the study, about half of the social separation between rich and poor is due to a lack of contact with each other.
“But the remaining half is explained by friendship bias,” Chetty said.
The results showed that US policy to reduce economic segregation between schools and regions is important but “not enough,” he added.
Where richer and poorer children meet has a big impact on whether they become friends, so institutions play a big role, the study finds.
For example, friendships in religious institutions like churches “are much more likely to cross class lines,” Chetty said.
The data on exposure and friending bias was released on socialcapital.org on Monday, and the researchers hope it will prompt authorities across the United States to act.
Chetty predicted that similar results would likely be found in other countries, and urged researchers and governments worldwide to access their own Facebook data.
Noam Angrist of the University of Oxford and Bruce Sacerdote of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire said the research “represents an important contribution that will enable a deeper understanding of social capital”.
“A sensible next step is to expand Chetty and colleagues’ monumental data production and analysis to countries outside the United States,” they wrote in a linked comment in Nature.
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