Thinking of your teen’s Internet acquaintances in a positive light is often difficult. Naturally, we are generally more preoccupied with the things that could go wrong when your teen interacts with strangers online; so much so, that we rarely pause to consider how valuable these friendships can actually be.
Is It Possible to Have Real Friendships Online?
Absolutely! I have many long-term, wonderful friendships with people I came across online, some I’ve met in real life, with many others across the world from me. In some ways, friendships made over cyber space can be more profound: it is easier to tell your deepest, darkest secrets when the recipient can’t see your face, and knowing so much about someone else can forge life-long bonds. Although there was (and in some cases, still is) stigma attached to online friendships, for teens growing up in a world surrounded by technology, it is just a normal part of life, with many having on-screen relationships with people they consider true friends.
Why Are Online Friendships So Valuable for Teens?
Friendships are important, wherever you find them, especially in the notoriously difficult teenage years, when a supportive shoulder to cry on is invaluable, and it is crucial to find someone that “gets” you. Many teens are desperate to have a confidante or community to share their experiences and fears with, yet might not have the confidence to speak in-depth to someone in person.
Many teens experience a sense of alienation, of being different to their peers, and of not quite fitting in. Yet as social animals, we instinctively need to be part of a group or other people’s lives. The Internet provides an opportunity for teens to find others with similar interests or viewpoints, offering an outlet for like-minded kids to chat about their common interests. More seriously, the Internet can also help teens speak about major issues in their life, such as depression or suicide, with those that have experienced the same thing, which could be a literal lifesaver.
Online Friendships Don’t Replace Family
As a parent, it is natural for you to be concerned when your teen is developing a strong bond with someone online, particularly if they live halfway across the world; you can hardly invite them home for dinner to check them out. There is also a concern that Internet friendships may be detrimental to real-life interactions with family and friends.
However, an international study undertaken by Norwegian researchers, published in the Journal of Youth Studies, found that although online communities are perceived as incredibly important to teens, and in some cases, almost as valuable as family interactions, their research concluded: “despite concerns in literature regarding the waning of the family as a stable anchoring point for youth in post-industrial countries, the family is still the respondents’ primary source of social identity.”
Respect Your Teen’s Online Friendships
Online friendships have always held some stigma, with many unable to believe that fulfilling and real relationships can exist between people that have never met. However, when you do find someone you can share your experiences, deepest thoughts, and life with, it feels special.
Many parents simply disregard the importance of their teen’s online connections. However, if you discount the significance of your teen’s friendships, or belittle them, you may invalidate the positive feelings they attain from the experience, perhaps even inducing a sense of shame or that they are doing something wrong. This could lead to them either totally withdrawing from communities that are important to them, or conversely, and more worryingly: they might become secretive and reluctant to share with you.
Don’t Ignore the Dangers
The Internet and teens can be a highly combustible combination, with cyberbullying and predators making safety a serious concern; if you Google “teen friendships” there is a deluge of warnings screaming of the dangers of Internet relationships. And of course, there is a good reason for this.
Without doubt, your teen’s Internet usage needs to be monitored closely, and if you are concerned that they are withdrawing from everyday life, spending less time interacting with real people, or upset rather than enjoying Internet friendships, then of course you need to step in.
You will also need to ask your teen questions about who they are talking to. Invariably, if your teen has nothing to hide, and their Internet pals are behaving appropriately, they will be more than happy to discuss them with you.