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Online Friendships: A Gen Z Norm Parents Struggle to Understand

My child is making friends online.

Parents around the world are both terrified and bewildered by their child’s socialization habits on the internet. Teens are using headsets to play games with people halfway across the nation, constantly on FaceTime with friends, and DMing with people they’ve never met on Instagram. In our office, parents often come with one (or both) of the following concerns: 

“Isn’t it weird that my child is talking to people they’ve never met? They can’t possibly think they are actually friends?”

“OMG my child is going to get lured by a sex trafficker …and kidnapped… and die”

While both concerns are valid, they are also indicative of the cultural gap between generations. The fact of the matter is, the way youth are connecting with their peers is changing and we need to catch up.  Rather than poo-pooing or banning it, it is our job to better understand it so that we can better support our children and keep them safe.

In 2015, Pew Research Center reported that 57% of teens have made a friend online. ABrittany LaFleur, Your Best Self Therapy more recent report by the center reported that 15% of teens reported having a close friend they first met online. With the internet vastly growing, the percentage of teenagers meeting good friends online is predicted to increase. So where are they making these friends? 

Research shows that female identifying teens are more likely to make online friends through social media (e.g. Snapchat, Instagram, Tik Tok) and teens identifying as male are more likely to make online friends through network gaming (e.g. Fortnite, Black ops, Grand Theft Auto). Most of the friendships are started due to a shared interest – in the game they are playing, or possibly a shared favorite band or celebrity.

Now, to answer parent’s most asked questions… 

“Isn’t it weird that my child is talking to people they’ve never met? They can’t possibly think they are actually friends?”

The reality is, teens talking to their friends online is not much different from the days when their parents would be up all night talking to their friends on their corded home phones (that is if the line was open). Connecting with peers is a vital aspect for teenagers universally, and their busier than ever schedules make that harder than ever. We may think “but they are around other kids all day between school and after school activities, isn’t that enough?” Practically speaking, there isn’t much time for true connecting and during those times. 

Brittany LaFleur, Your Best Self TherapyTeenagers have a lot going on internally, and if they don’t have time to connect with peers face-to-face, they resort to the always available internet. What’s more is the internet allows them to connect with people they may not have the opportunity to meet in person. It’s actually pretty awesome that compared to their parents, their pool of potential peers is expanded by millions. For this reason, marginalized communities (e.g. teens struggling with mental health or LGBTQ kids) often gravitate towards the internet to connect with peers they may not have access to in their communities, or feel comfortable approaching. In fact, 68% of teens reported online groups help them feel more accepted, and 55% reported they helped them get through tough times. 

“OMG my child is going to get lured by a sex trafficker …and kidnapped… and die”

While making friends online can be beneficial for teens, it can also come with risk if they aren’t safe. Most of their chatting will be innocent, there is the chance of a catfish (someone pretending to be someone else on the internet) and child predators. The main key being: Never post or share your location or key identifying information. Often, a teen will know someone in their online friend’s network – a cousin knows them, they go to school with a camp friend, or used to go to school with someone they know. Encourage your teen to use these networks to verify the information the person is sharing with them.

The situation becomes even more risky when the teens decide to meet in person. Current research suggests that one in five teens have met an online friend in person. Again, this is often innocent but it is crucial to make sure your teen is safe. Discourage meet ups

Brittany LaFleur, Your Best Self Therapy

unless you are present and it is in a public place. Undermining the importance of these online friendships for your teen or attempting to ban them may be the riskiest thing a parent can do. Doing so may lead your teen to hide these friendships and not have an ally to help them make informed and safe decisions. 

As much as we non Gen Z-ers may not fully understand the meaning of an online friend, they are the norm for our teens.  As long as they are continuing to connect with peers in person and stay internet smart, more power to them.

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