Online Friends: Are You For Real?

Back in the olden days when my Internet connection was dial-up, few people were discussing online friends. In the basements of college dorms across the country however, students were beginning to form connections with others that they’d never met, in the form of online games.

The world of online friendships for teens has changed dramatically in the last decade. In just six years, since 2007, Pew Research’s study of Friendship, Strangers and Safety in Online Social Networks revealed that 95% of teens are online and the number of them using some form of social media has almost tripled.

So, when I think about teens and online friendships of today, I think of certain questions.

  • What is our modern definition of a real friendship?
  • Are online friendships real?
  • How do we prepare our tweens and teens for a life where many of your friends live inside your computer?

As a school principal, I spend a lot of time counseling parents on digital footprints, social media use, and how to monitor a child’s activity online. Most parents I speak with, are petrified that their kids will meet a predator online – who will then get kidnapped – and then all kinds of parental nightmares ensue. Most parents never consider that their kids can and do make friends – real friends – online.

A couple years ago, I had the opportunity to teach a class entirely online using Minecraft. I had more than 20 students, all of whom had met in-person at our school, earlier in the year. Their class interactions however, were entirely online and in-game. Many parents were frustrated. One mom asked, “How will the kids learn to behave if you’re not watching them?”

The Minecraft class focused on American history, but the true objective was to learn online social etiquette. I heavily monitored the first few weeks and intervened several times. We talked about everything from how to form a chat request that sounds kind, to remembering not to steal other student’s virtual Minecraft property. While I did not control the server’s open hours, we talked about what addictive behavior looks like and when and how to get up from your computer to do something else.

It takes a lot of social interaction to learn the rules of society. So, it came with little surprise that tears and angry words passed between students, when one discovered that their pickaxe had been stolen or another found his house had been burned down. However, when it was all over seven weeks later, the students were begging me to do the class again. Each and every one of them felt supported online. They made new online connections that led to more contact in person. They formed real friendships.

Whatever you may think of the Internet, you have to acknowledge: Kids make friends online. Nearly 40% of teens said they met someone online who went on to become a good friend. Teens go on to report these online friendships as having a positive social influence in their lives and that these relationships make them feel good about themselves.

Online friendships also give teens the opportunity to make connections that they otherwise struggle with in-person. The American Psychological Association reports that shy and lonely teens, those outcast kids in school, are creating meaningful connections online. These kids develop a safe-haven outside of school where they are accepted and connected in ways never possible in the past.

The line has blurred between in-life friends and online friends, to the extent that teens no longer differentiate. My students say “My friend in Maine” or “a guy I know in England.” They don’t say “my online friend”. Teens take great insult when adults classify these online friendships as anything less than real. As parents, we need to take these relationships seriously and honor them as we would a friendship at school or on the soccer team. We need to find ways to allow our teens to carve out time for these valuable friendships, in the same way that we used to set aside time for park days and play dates.

Do you see online friendships as “real” friends?
How are you talking about Internet relationships with your kids?


Tracy Chatters

Tracy Chatters is a California charter school principal, teacher and a homeschooler with more than 16 years experience in education. Her primary focus is helping families find educational solutions for children who do not fit in a traditional box. When she’s not working, Tracy enjoys traveling, spending time with her family, reading and baking.

6 thoughts on “Online Friends: Are You For Real?

  • August 11, 2015 at 7:51 am

    Shared with my friends. Would like to have this discussion with them and their children.

  • August 11, 2015 at 8:46 am

    We learned the hard way that calling online friends “virtual” friends or worse calling in-person friends “real” friends (which suggests online friends are not real friends) drove a huge wedge in our family. Respecting those online friendships gave us a chance to keep communication open with our teens, especially when one of those teens was experiencing serious depression.

  • August 11, 2015 at 10:37 am

    I have found it amusing that so many people cannot understand that on-line friendships are very real and can often be more honest than friendships started in person due to many issues not coming into play until the basic friendship is well established such as looks, race, age, income level, location, etc.. One tends to start with common ground prior to personal details and develops from there. Of course I started on-line back when the internet first became available so have a more extended view of the matter. My daughter, who is now past her teen years, has an annual gathering of on-line friends whom she has known for several years, with a minimum of 3 years acquaintanceship required. They all look forward to getting together IRL, but the friendships are nurtured on-line though the members of the group do visit back & forth when possible.

    • August 11, 2015 at 8:11 pm

      Great point Diana! When people come together online due to a common interest and friendship grows from there, so many components are left out of the equation. It really is a level playing field and a way to make sincere friends from all walks of life.

  • August 11, 2015 at 3:29 pm

    While I value real face-to-face friendships, online friendships are the same as the pen pals I grew up with, with only faster and more continuous communication. Like Diana stated above, looks, race, age, income level, and location do not come into play with online friends and I think that is the major benefit to online friendships.

    • August 11, 2015 at 8:14 pm

      When explaining to parents, I’ve equated this to the college roommate that you adored but who moved across the country. They might not be able to show up to help in person, but the 2am email or post can be just as helpful and comforting. Like pen-pals, they’re still real connections- just in a different time and space.

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