To most modern parents, the online and offline worlds are decidedly different environments; one represents real life, and the other is simply a digital hub for storing information, sharing images, and streamlining life’s administrative tasks. Yet, for today’s young people, the distinction between ‘real’ life and online life is much less clear; the Internet has always been a part of their everyday lives, and is, therefore, an extension of their real lives.
Having grown up without access to smartphones or social media, it’s no surprise that sometimes parents struggle with the notion that technology is now a cornerstone in young people’s friendships. Yet, when you put forward the question ‘can Internet friends be real friends?’ to today’s young people, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.
In fact, according to the findings of a 2016 study, online friendships are just as important to the wellbeing of young people as physical friends. So why is that we insist on placing a hierarchical prefix before the word ‘friend’ in so many contexts? As journalist Clem Bastow observes, “‘friends’ are probably more important than ‘work friends’; ‘school friend’ suggests that, like school, you’ve outgrown that person; and as for ‘Internet friend’, well, you might as well say ‘imaginary friend’, in most people’s eyes.”
Can Internet Friends Be Real Friends?
“I dislike the phrase, ‘Internet friends,’ because it implies that people you know online aren’t really your friends, that somehow the friendship is less real or meaningful to you… The measure of a friendship is not its physicality but its significance. Good friendships, online or off, urge us toward empathy; they give us comfort and also pull us out of the prisons of ourselves.” – John Green, award-winning author and educator.
The notion that Internet friends can’t be real friends is misplaced. The data gathered in The UK Safer Internet Centre’s 2018 survey of over 2000 young people demonstrates that “technology is embedded throughout their relationships and the majority of young people (in our survey) said that they would feel isolated if they couldn’t talk to friends via technology”.
Here are some key findings from the study, which serve as evidence of how Internet friends can be real friends to young people:
The most popular platforms 8-17-year-olds are using to chat to their friends on a daily basis are YouTube (41%), WhatsApp (32%), Snapchat (29%), Instagram (27%) and Facebook/Facebook Messenger (26%).
Being online is key for many young people’s relationships:
Over half (54%) of respondents aged 8-17 said they would feel isolated if they couldn’t talk to their friends via technology
Almost two in five (39%) said they have made friends online that they wouldn’t have met otherwise
When we question whether Internet friends can be real friends to our children, we are projecting our own ideals onto them; having grown up Internet-free, the closest comparison many of us have to an Internet friend is a pen-pal. Yet, for those of us who did have pen-pals, we would do well to remember the excitement we felt when that letter arrived in the post, containing an exciting world of secrets and stories, all sealed with the promise of friendship.
“The overwhelming majority of young people are regularly experiencing positive emotions and people being kind to them when they’re online. Technology provides an important way for them to support their peers who are going through difficult times. It is this vision, of a kind, respectful and supportive online community, that we are all striving to make a reality for every young person.” – Will Gardner, Director of The UK Safer Internet Centre.
Can Digital Friendships Be Harmful To Young People?
The forging of genuine friendships online is not, in itself, harmful. Rather, it is the subsequent negligence of real-world friendships that is most alarming. While it is certainly not fair to say that friendships which are established in an offline context are more beneficial or valid than those formed online, it is widely believed that in-person companionship and face to face interactions are singularly beneficial to a person’s mental health and well-being.
According to leading US psychologist, Sherry Turkle, when we rely too heavily on technology in times of need, we are learning to “expect more from technology, and less from each other. Technology appeals to us most when we’re most vulnerable; when we’re lonely, but afraid of intimacy”.
Turkle believes that the pattern we often see of people being distracted by devices when they’re in the presence of others or being too preoccupied with digital friendships to actively seek real-world interactions is cause for concern. The MIT professor also fears that society’s increased dependence on the pseudo-companionship offered by technology is symptomatic of a much bigger problem, which needs to be addressed; she believes that we are at a defining crossroad in our “infatuation with life on screens rather than life in the real world, never wholly in one or the other. She measures these effects in a breakdown of empathy between children, in the consequences of increasingly distracted family interaction and a growing need for constant stimulus. Her antidote is a simple one: we need to talk more to each other”. 
This is not to say that we should discourage our children from making and maintaining online friendships, but rather a case of ensuring that they don’t lose sight of the importance of maintaining and actively participating in offline friendships as well. In addition to supporting them as establish digital literacy, we need to ensure that our children develop the interpersonal skills which apply uniquely to real-world environments.
1. Laura Gartry, 2016. Online friendships ‘equally as potent’ for teenagers, Murdoch Uni researcher finds.
2. Sarah Ashley Bryant, 2016. Internet friends are real friends, too.
3. Sherry Turkle, 2012. Ted Talks: Connected, but alone?
5. Clem Bastow, 2012. Are internet friends real friends?
6. UK Safer Internet Centre, 2018. Digital friendships: The role of technology in young people’s relationships.