Dr. Nicole Beurkens
The ability to be in constant contact with strangers online is a relatively new phenomenon, and kids connecting with people they don’t know in real life and developing friendships in an online environment has become much more the norm. As a result, it’s normal for adults to have questions and concerns about online friendships and how to help kids navigate them in healthy ways.
Friendships are an important part of kids’ lives, and provide so many benefits and learning opportunities. We all know that real, lasting friendships are often formed as a result of common interests. Two friends on the same soccer team may discover they also have a love of science fiction, for instance.
These compatibilities 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. Connecting with peers online can be a great way for kids to solve these issues. 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. Internet friendships can be a valuable part of kids’ lives, provided they have support to navigate them in a healthy way.
Are online friendships healthy?
Friendships are an important part of life for any child, as they allow them to feel connected, understood, and cared for. These relationships can happen in real life or online, and research has shown that both types of friendships can provide benefits.
While parents may worry that friendships online aren’t “real” or can be detrimental in some way, the reality is that many kids cultivate healthy and appropriate online friendships in various ways. They may have a peer or group of peers they play games with, participate in a forum or group, communicate with on social media, or connect in some other way. This can all be healthy, as long as there aren’t signs indicating otherwise.
When does an online friendship become unhealthy?
If your child is not spending any time in real life with peers and only has online friends, that is an indication that perhaps they are overfocused on online relationships. They might be experiencing bullying by peers in real life, have anxiety about in-person socialization, or some other issue that needs to be addressed.
Other signs that online friendships may be unhealthy include:
- Your child giving up interests or activities they enjoy in order to spend more time with one person online in a particular activity
- Your child being more sneaky or secretive with their online behavior
- Any personality or behavior changes you notice as your child spends more time with a particular online friend.
Are online friendships as valuable as face-to-face friendships?
Parents often ask me if their child’s online friendships are as beneficial as friendships in person, and I think the answer depends on the child and the type of relationship. Certainly there can be surface level online friendships that are valuable, but lack true support or depth.
However, I’ve also worked with children and teens who develop deeper connections with a friend online, and it serves as a healthy and valuable support to them beyond some face-to-face friendships they have. This can especially be the case for kids who are neurodivergent or have other unique needs, conditions, or preferences that make it difficult for them to form deeper connections with peers in their local school or community.
Finding a balance between on and offline friendships
One of the downsides of virtual friendships (depending on how they are interacting) is that kids can’t communicate as fully because they can’t read body language, eye contact, or even tone like you can in person.
This is why having in-person friendships in addition to online relationships is beneficial. In general, it’s helpful to avoid thinking of this as “either-or”, and instead focus on having friendships both in person as well as online. This ensures that kids aren’t only relying on relationships with people they only have access to virtually, and allows them to connect with the full spectrum of communication and feel supported in person as well.
How do you keep online friendships safe?
As with anything our children do on devices, safety is a concern and should be a priority when it comes to online friendships. It’s important to talk with kids about online safety in general, and especially when it comes to providing personal details.
This includes helping kids know when it’s okay to tell someone information such as birthdate, address, school name, etc. It’s also critical to have conversations about what kinds of personal information to share with others online about feelings, experiences, and more intimate life details. This is to help keep them safe, but also to help them think about who they should trust with this information versus not trust.
One of the best ways to do this is to have open ongoing communication about who your child is connecting with online, what level of friendship they feel they have with those people, and the kinds of things they’re doing and sharing with each other.
This helps you stay aware of areas where your child may need more guidance or support to navigate those relationships in healthy and safe ways. It also helps to cover “red flags” that would indicate someone online is not truly a friend and perhaps trying to take advantage of them.
Red flags for suspicious online friendship behavior include:
- Asking for certain types of photos
- Asking about personal details your child isn’t comfortable disclosing
- Asking them to do certain things for them, etc.
These kinds of issues come up in face-to-face relationships as well, but can be uniquely difficult for many kids to navigate online in a virtual setting. Parental control tools, like Qustodio, provide a simple way for parents to stay aware of what kids are doing online in order to help guide them more effectively with these relationships.
How to end an online friendship
There may come a time when it’s best for your child to end an online friendship for a variety of reasons. It may be that they have outgrown the relationship, no longer share the same interests, or have other connections they’d prefer to pursue. There may also be situations where the online friendship has become unhealthy, in which case kids often benefit from parent support to know how to end those internet friendships.
Some kids may default to “ghosting” their friends online, which basically means they just disappear and stop communicating with them. While there may be safety instances where this is warranted, in general we want to help our children develop skills for bringing closure to relationships in healthier ways. That can include helping them draft a text, DM, or other communication briefly explaining their desire to connect less frequently or to discontinue the friendship.
In the case of health or safety concerns, such as online bullying or other inappropriate behavior, kids may need support to report their peer to the platform they are using, block the person on social media, and/or have words they can use if the person continues to try to contact them. No matter what you as the adult think about the relationship, the goal should be to support your child and help them develop skills for navigating these situations in safe and appropriate ways.
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 doesn’t capitalize her name) says instead of banning these interactions, parents should use them as an opportunity to teach kids how to meet strangers. This is a skill they’ll need when they leave home and meet their college roommate, potential dating partners, and even future work associates. She suggests that parents:
- ask thorough questions
- help kids learn how to verify the person’s identity
- suggest appropriate public meeting places
- accompany them to their first offline meeting.
Like so many other situations parents and kids encounter, meeting online friends in real life can be an opportunity for learning and growth that will serve your child well as they become adults.
Our goal as parents should be to help our kids develop and maintain supportive and healthy relationships in whatever ways work best for them. This means supporting the development of internet friendships as appropriate, and using those opportunities as a way to help kids develop relational and safety skills they can use throughout their lives.