This is a much shortened, adapted extract from the section on online friendships and social media in The Teenage Guide to Friends adapted and reproduced here by kind permission of Walker Books. For the full discussion, do take a look at the book!
ONLINE FRIENDSHIPS – SOCIAL MEDIA
Social media is incredibly new and has allowed us all to be in contact with huge numbers of people from many different backgrounds and cultures. When your parents were teenagers, they could really only meet people who lived near them.
Those of us who use social media would describe many people as friends even if we haven’t met them in real life. But are they friends? All of them? Does it matter if they are different types of friendship from the face-to-face sort that we’ve had for thousands of years? I believe there are some things to be cautious about as well as the many advantages to celebrate. And there are strategies to help us negotiate possible problems. Since your parents didn’t have to deal with this, they also need to learn strategies.
Good things about social media
Making friends online has lots of advantages. You can get to know people from a wide range of backgrounds and cultures. For people in rural communities or small towns, it can be the only way to be in contact with a variety of people. I think making friends with people from different countries and backgrounds is really important, helping us be more understanding and open-minded.
The online world is also great for anyone who finds it difficult to know what to say face to face. On a social media platform or online forum, you can take those first steps without the extra stress of speaking and making eye contact. You can find out a lot about the other person – such as whether you have similar likes and dislikes, interests and opinions. You get an idea of their sense of humour, how kind they are, whether they think in the same way as you.
You can also easily find people with particular interests. So, if you like books or film, you’ll find online communities of teenagers discussing books or film. Every hobby or sport you can think of will be represented out there in the online world.
If you have a particular difficulty, anxiety or disability, or a personal or family situation that makes you want to talk to others who have been through the same, there will be support groups for people who share your life circumstances and concerns.
Finally, if you feel “different” from the people you happen to be at school with, the online world gives you the chance to find people your age you can identify with. Isolation becomes less likely for all these reasons.
Problems with social media
There are well-known dangers and disadvantages to online friendships. If you know the risks, you can more easily avoid them. (In The Teenage Guide to Friends, I go into these in much more detail.)
First, since you can’t see the person, you could easily be deceived. It could be in a small way – a boy saying he is 5ft 8 when he is really 5ft 3 – who cares? Or in a big way – someone claiming to be a 14 year old girl, just like you, when in fact it’s a 48 year old man. (Never risk meeting anyone for the first time without someone else with you and making sure that the meeting-place is safe and public. Take no risks at all with this.)
Second, it can happen that you get on with someone online but not in real life. The “chemistry” isn’t there or is different, because the chemistry comes from being with a person.
Third, if you find real life chat difficult or scary, take care not to use the internet as a hiding-place. Online friendships are great and feeling the need to hide sometimes is normal but it’s also important to have some face-to-face interaction and to face things we find difficult. You will find strategies in the book.
Finally, most people aren’t entirely honest online. They select the best or most dramatic pictures or posts about themselves. We all, to some extent, show aspects of ourselves that we want to show. We do that face-to-face as well, but it’s easier to do it online, so we may do it more. This means that what you see online is only a snapshot and might give the impression that everyone has a more exciting or more perfect life than you.
The rewards of online communication are huge but the rewards of face-to-face contact are biologically important to us and give us a truer picture of other people and the world. A balance of both is probably best.
Can you have too many friends?
(In the book, I talk about Dunbar’s Number and explain this concept in more detail but I think it’s important to mention one aspect here.)
Although social networking allows us to make a large number of “friends” easily, it has stretched our networks so widely that we can’t maintain them. And just trying to can cause stress. Some people make the mistake of thinking it’s all about how many friends, rather than how good those friends are. It’s about getting “likes” and affirmation. If you’re on social media, you know that little heart-lift you get when you see you’ve got a certain number of likes on your latest post or picture? That’s a little rush of the chemical dopamine – the brain’s reward chemical – and it’s addictive. You want more and more of it and your happiness starts to depend on how many people “liked” the photo of you grinning at a funfair. Doesn’t sound too great, does it?
Social media offers a truly wonderful set of opportunities for support, socialising and friendship but I think there are some downsides. Yes, these friendships have a type of reality and I value them immensely but I don’t think they are enough. We need to recognise the differences and the downsides and we mustn’t neglect the face-to-face contact that humans gain so much from.
Extracted and adapted from THE TEENAGE GUIDE TO FRIENDS © 2017 Nicola Morgan. Published by Walker Books Ltd.