Wealthier childhood friends boost future earnings, Facebook data shows

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Paris (AFP)- An analysis of 21 billion Facebook friendships shows that children from poorer homes are likely to win later in life if they grow up in areas where they can become friends with wealthier children.

It has long been believed that having wealthy friends can lift children out of poverty, but previous research had small sample sizes or limited data, according to two studies published Monday in the journal Nature.

A team of US-based researchers therefore turned to Facebook, the world‘s largest social database, with its nearly three billion users offering unprecedented scale and precision to examine the question.

They analyzed the privacy-protected data of 72 million American Facebook users between the ages of 25 and 44. Facebook friendships have been used to represent actual friendships.

The researchers used an algorithm to categorize users by socioeconomic status, age, and region, among other factors.

They then measured how well richer and poorer people interacted with each other and created the term “economic connectedness” to represent the share of a person’s friends who were above or below the average socio-economic level.

They then compared this measure with previous research on children’s ability to escape poverty in every U.S. ZIP code.

The results were “surprisingly similar,” said Raj Chetty, an economist at Harvard University and lead author of the two studies.

The first paper showed that economic connectivity “is one of the strongest predictors of economic mobility that anyone has identified to date,” Chetty said.

The second article investigated why children from richer or poorer backgrounds are more likely to make friends in some areas than in others.

Lets be friends

The researchers found two main factors. One was how exposed the two groups are to each other – for example, whether they attend different high schools or live in separate neighborhoods.

Even if rich and non-rich students attended the same school, they might not date each other, a factor the researchers called friendship bias.

According to the study, about half of the social disconnect between rich and poor was due to lack of exposure to each other.

“But the other half is explained by a friendship bias,” Chetty said.

The results showed that US policies aimed at reducing economic segregation between schools and regions were important but “not sufficient”, he added.

Where richer and poorer children meet has a major influence on their friendship, meaning institutions play a major role, the study finds.

For example, friendships in religious institutions like churches were “much more likely to cross class lines,” Chetty said.

Data on exposure and friendship bias was published on socialcapital.org on Monday, with researchers hoping it will spur authorities across the United States to take action.

Chetty predicted that similar results would likely be found in other countries, urging researchers and governments around the world to access their own Facebook data.

Noam Angrist from the University of Oxford and Bruce Sacerdote from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire said the research was “an important contribution that will enable a deeper understanding of social capital”.

“A sensible next step is to expand the monumental data creation and analysis of Chetty and his colleagues to countries outside of the United States,” they wrote in a linked comment in Nature.

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