Friendships On Social Media

Social media has taken over the way we interact with people. Read on to learn the implications of your child forming digital friendships.

By Meera Mathews Marrate

Friendships On Social Media

Maya, a mother of two teenage daughters, is fine if her children use social media to connect with friends, as long as it is within limits. She says, “As a modern-day parent, you need to understand that children are fundamentally wired for socialisation. Social media gives them that perfect platform.”

Maya’s good friend Navin, father to a teenager, firmly believes that friendships should be formed on the basis of quality time spent together. According to Navin, being physically present for important life experiences is what really matters.

Navin and Maya may be next-door neighbours and good friends, but they’re worlds apart when it comes to their thoughts on friendship. Well, this is the new-age reality. Whether you support ‘Team Virtual’ or ‘Team Real’, it is undeniable that the nature of friendship is constantly evolving. But has the essence of friendship changed due to this evolution?

Timeless friendships

When the young and the old talk about what they expect from a friend, and invariably, all conversations lead to the same three expectations:

  • Someone to talk to
  • Somebody to depend on
  • Someone to have fun with

Over the years, most experts have agreed that true friendship can be developed only through many face-to-face interactions. Looking back, before the advent of social media, there was a certain charm in the way friends used to communicate and bond, which further strengthened relationships.

  • Before texting, it was a global norm in schools for students to covertly pass notes with amusing anecdotes and funny observations.
  • After meeting a new friend over summer vacations, you kept in touch through letters.
  • You knew where your friends lived. It was perfectly normal to drop in unannounced. In simple words, it was fun to gate-crash.
  • Long conversations over the phone with your bestie was the best part of the day.
  • You waited all year to send and receive birthday cards. And most of them became keepsakes.
Friendships On Social Media

‘Connected cocooning’: Friendships on social media

A decade or two ago, meeting new friends, keeping in touch and maintaining friendships was often very difficult, due to geographical limitations or time constraints. Today, social media plays a key role in filling this gap. It helps people stay connected even when separated by distance.

Social media has opened a world of global interaction, with the power to change our outlook and nature of friendship. It’s a tempting platform that lets you meet and maintain an extensive network of ‘friends’.

Teenagers today are a part of a culture of ‘Connected cocooning’ — a phrase coined by music channel MTV. It describes how the ‘MTV generation’ is constantly wired to a network of digital devices, or more precisely, social media platforms.

Based on two surveys conducted by Pew Research in 2015 in the US, increasingly, teens go online to make friends. A majority (57 per cent) have met at least one new friend online while 29 per cent said they have met at least five friends that way. However, most of these friendships remain online; only 20 per cent of teens have met an online friend in person.

The report further adds that most digital friendships are made through social media and online game play. Teens use texting in their day-to-day interactions. For boys, chatting and hanging out together while playing video games is crucial to developing and maintaining friendships. Social media introduces teens to new friends and keeps them connected to existing friends. It connects them to their friends’ lives and feelings, and offers them support during challenging times.

Easy way out?

Multiple studies done over the years show that individuals take part in virtual interactions because it is less stressful emotionally. It is easier to say things that would be difficult to say face-to-face. For example, when two friends are in a fight, it is easier to cut off their relationship through a text, than do so in person.

According to Indhu Rebecca, psychology educator who works with teens, “Social media tends to dilute relationships and exacerbate issues unnecessarily. For teenagers, this is especially true considering they are the ones who spend the most time on social media. Making friends has never been easier. Click on a blue button and your friend's, friend's friend becomes your "FB BFF!!", Silly, isn't it? But for a teenager, the number of likes for an FB post or the number of 'Friends' following them on Instagram is a matter of pride and status. They take it as an evidence of their popularity which reflects on how ‘in and happening’ they are.”

As 17-year-old Vidhya Ram says, “I chat with my online friends for hours. But when we pass each other in the hallway at school, we don't even exchange a glance.”

Parents and teachers should be tuned in to their child’s virtual life and be open to conversations about the same. It is important to impress upon the child the need to steer clear of the dangers posed by social media. It is equally important not to sound preachy (teenagers hate that!).

A 2013 study conducted by Dr Sam Roberts, senior lecturer at the University of Chester in UK, found that people interacting face-to-face were 50 per cent more likely to laugh. They considered themselves as significantly happier. In the words of Dr Roberts, “Quality, not quantity of communication. is most important for keeping friends for life....”

Parent talk

Those were the days...

Rita, mother of 15-year-old Ashwin vividly remembers the ‘personal’ experiences with her friend during her childhood. “My mother had to drag me back every evening from the playground. I refused to leave my friends. It’s ironic that there are times I threaten to physically remove the iPad from my son’s hand when he spends too much time on the Net. I guess he refuses to leave his ‘friends’ as well.” 

Safety first 

Anu, mother of 15-year-old Adwaita, says, “Back in my teenage years, my parents used to talk to me about how I should be careful of befriending strangers and be aware of my surroundings. Although times have changed, whether it’s for online or offline friendship, two words — ‘Safety First’ — still hold true.”

Friendships in the real world

Pros

  • Sense of belonging: Having a closely-knit group of friends can make your child feel important and valued and not judged.
  • Together with a smile: Hanging out with friends, laughing, chatting and playing together creates happy times and memories for your teen.
  • Support system: Your teen’s friends are there to help him with everyday issues — be it school work, problems with peers or even, close personal issues. They keep him grounded and motivated.
  • Influence: Your teen’s friends are a great influence in her life. Spending time with her friends will help your child understand herself better, her likes and dislikes, how to handle situations, and the people she connects with best.

The challenges

  • Communication can be difficult in case of distance and separation.
  • A lot of planning is required to meet up often, especially if friends move to different colleges and cities.
  • You need to invest the time to strengthen the friendship.

Virtual friendships

Pros

  • Connect with the world: Social media has no geographical limits. Your teen can connect with people having similar interests from different countries.
  • Comfort factor: If your teen has social anxiety, social media will help build his confidence and develop his communication skills. Online friends will encourage him to say what he really feels and thinks.
  • Sense of belonging: The feeling of belonging to a network of friends and peers enhances your teen’s self-belief. It creates a comfortable environment where your child can interact with friends without feeling pressured. When her friends message, ‘Follow’ her or ‘Like’ a photo, your child feels appreciated and loved.
  • An effective outlet: Texting and chatting online with friends your child knows in person, can be an effective medium for him to express disappointments, frustrations and fears. The additional support he receives from peers online, can help him overcome stressful experiences.
  • Keeping up with friends: Social media is a great way for your teen to know what’s happening in her friends' lives and to offer each other encouragement and support.

The challenges

  • There is a lack of physical interaction.
  • There is an increased risk of misunderstandings because online interactions do not involve tone or body language.
  • Conversations online are not spontaneous. Teens think and respond, and this can increase social anxiety.
  • In an online interaction, teens write to a screen. So, it is easy to dehumanise the people your teen is interacting with — your teen could end up writing something he would never say in person.
  • Teens deal with real-life problems with friends by texting rather than solving these issues in person, for fear of dealing with hurt emotions.
  • The number of 'Followers' and 'Likes' begins to define your child’s self-esteem and status. Sometimes, teens will remove posts if they do not get enough 'Likes'.
  • When friends only post about the good in their lives, others assume their life is perfect. Teens begin to compare and feel their life is not as interesting.
  • One can easily be cat-fished (talking to someone using a false identity).
  • Your teen can become addicted to his devices because of the need to always stay connected with the outside world and friends.
  • Social media is a highly opinionated environment. It can make your child dejected if opinions do not go his way.
  • Teens can feel socially excluded if they are not invited to join certain online groups, or when they find out about events posted on social media they are not invited to.
  • Getting bullied online by peers can take a toll on their emotional well-being.

Teen talk

An ‘interest’ing world

13-year-old Advait loves the way social media keeps him in the loop and connects him to people with similar interests. He says, “I love basketball and joined an online group of young basketball lovers. I made some great friends there. We discuss matches, favourite players, etc. I feel that I am part of something bigger than myself. I feel a sense of belonging when connected to a community of friends and peers.”

No communication gap

11-year-old Vikas feels social media has helped him to open up. He says, “Chatting with friends online helps me feel comfortable as I feel less awkward and anxious.”

Stress buster

14-year-old Pia says, “Looking at photos and updates of friends online helps me understand them better and allows me to peek into their lives. It opens up lines of communication and understanding. When I feel stressed, I vent online to my friends and it helps me feel less frustrated.”

Besties in action

15-year-old Rehaan says, “I love the fact that I share funny and sad moments with my friends, be it winning a match or doing badly in an exam. I’ve made some good friends this way. I was never into reading but my best friend is an avid reader. Recently, I accompanied him to a library and randomly picked up a book to kill time. To my surprise, I enjoyed it. Now, we go together to rent books.”

My friend, my strength

13-year-old Arya says, “If I want to talk to my friend, all I need to do is call him. I don’t have to wait for him to come online. Knowing that my friends will be with me if I face any trouble gives me strength and makes me happy. I met my best friend in second grade. I love the fact the we know everything about each other.

Top 5 apps/websites popular among teens

Facebook allows users to connect with friends, family and other people they know, share photos and videos, send messages and get updates.

What parents need to know:

  • By default, the Facebook settings are set to public, not private. You’ll need to manually reset the privacy settings.
  • Anyone can send your child a 'Friend' request. Changing the privacy settings can help you filter unwanted 'Friend' requests.
  • Only for users above 13 years. Parental consent required for children below 18 years.

WhatsApp allows users to send text messages, audio messages, videos and photos for free.

What parents need to know:

  • Only for users above 13 years. Parental consent required for children below 18 years.
  • After you install the app, it automatically connects to other WhatsApp members in your contact list.

Twitter is a microblogging site that lets users post brief messages called 'Tweets'. You can also ‘Follow’ other users' activities.

What parents need to know:

  • The 'Tweets' are public by default. The privacy can be changed in the account settings to 'protected Tweets'.
  • There is no minimum age requirement to sign up. Parental consent required for children below 13 years.

Snapchat is an image messaging app to share pictures and videos which can be viewed for a short amount of time.

What parents need to know:

  • Only for users above 13 years. Parental consent required for children below 18 years.
  • In this messaging app, once an image is viewed, it gets deleted. But still, teens need to be careful and not share inappropriate pictures.

Instagram allows users to capture, edit and share photos, videos, and messages with friends and family.

What parents need to know:

  • Photos are public by default unless privacy settings are changed.
  • Instagram Direct has an option that allows users to send ‘Private messages’ to mutual friends. These pictures don’t show up in the public feed.
  • Only for users above 13 years. Parental consent required for children below 18 years. 

With so many new ways to talk to people, the world can seem a bit confusing, especially if you aren't up to date with technology. Now, with all this information you are in a better place to guide your teen when it comes to forming friends digitally and non-digitally. 

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