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Mar 12, 2014

Are online friendships good for teens? Researchers say “Yes!”

Parents begin telling their kids not to talk to strangers as soon as they can make sense of the words, but is this advice as relevant to the virtual world as it is to the real one? An impressive and growing body of research indicates that there are many benefits to online relationships during adolescence.

Making friends online is easy

Whether the world is really more dangerous now than it was a few decades ago is debatable, but there’s no doubting the fact that modern parents are more vigilant than their parents were with them. As an unintended consequence of these new precautions, however, teens are more isolated than they’ve ever been, at least in the physical sense. Young teens, especially, often aren’t allowed to roam the neighborhood or visit the homes of friends they know from school, so they turn to the next best thing—social media. Sixteen-year-old Justina tells Teen Vogue that she prefers making friends online: “Being online actually gives you the chance to make a friendship happen faster than it would in real life because you have constant access to each other.”

Social media helps kids find common interests

We all know that real, lasting friendships are often formed as a result of a common interest. Two friends on the same soccer team find out they also have a love of science fiction, for instance. These common interests can be more difficult for kids to discover in real life, especially in school where they’re grouped based on age alone. Teens who are early or late bloomers often have trouble making friends with their same-aged peers.

With social media, however, kids have the opportunity to make friends with kids of different ages. By liking and following certain channels or forums, it’s easy for teens to express their interests and connect with like-minded peers. These common interests can be the basis for friendships and can also facilitate offline engagement. For instance, a recent study found that kids who participated in political and civil discussions online were more likely to volunteer and be active members of their communities.

Online friendships can boost confidence and self-esteem

Research has shown that shy or socially awkward teens benefit the most from online friendships. These are the kids who have a lot to say but hesitate to speak up for fear of rejection or criticism—risks that are minimized in online venues. When kids feel that they are emotionally safe to express themselves, it becomes a lot easier to crack a joke or engage in small talk in order to make friends.

Though parents often dissuade kids from talking to people they don’t know online, there are actually benefits to such interactions. For instance, teens who chat while playing video games report having better friendships that those who play alone, making them less vulnerable to the negative and potentially long-term repercussions of a friendless adolescence such as unemployment and poor mental health.

Should teens meet up with online friends IRL (in real life)?

Even parents who are comfortable with their teens making new friends online are often hesitant about letting them take their friendship a step further by meeting up in real life. Adolescent researcher danah boyd (who prefers her name written in lowercase) says instead of banning these interactions, parents should use the opportunity to teach teens how to meet strangers, arguing that it’s a skill they’ll need when they leave the nest and meet their college roommate, for instance. boyd suggests that parents ask questions, help their teensverify the person’s identity, and accompany them to their first offline meeting.

Qustodio offers parents many tools for helping their teens navigate online friendships. Download our free software today, and help us spread the message by sharing this post with other parents of teens!

Note: The opinions above belong to Melissa Maypole, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility for Qustodio. Download Qustodio’s free software to begin managing, monitoring, and understanding your kids’ online media consumption today.


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How can Qustodio help protect your family?

Qustodio is the best way to keep your kids safe online and help them create healthy digital habits. Our parental control tools ensure they don't access inappropriate content or spend too much time in front of their screens.