Given the way the media works, we tend to hear a lot of fear based messages about the internet and teens. Fear that they will be contacted by a child predator. Fear that they will see pornography they don’t understand. Fear that they will send a sext into the virtual world that can never be taken back. We talk about the fear and the bad things. However, there is balance in everything. While there are some risks to children from unsupervised internet use, we have to acknowledge that there are also great benefits from connectivity as well. The Pew Research Center recently published a study outlining the benefits of connectivity to teen friendships and social behavior.

Pew surveyed teens from 13 to 17 years in the fall of 2014 and the winter of 2015 both in person and online. The focus of their work was to assess how teens use the online world to make and maintain friendships. The bottom line is that the internet, gaming and social media are critical to creating and maintaining friendships for teens.

The study showed that 57% of teens have made at least one friend online. Boys are more likely than girls to create new online friendships. Many of these friendships (64%) have been created via a social media outlet such as Facebook or Instagram. Boys are apt to make friends online via multiplayer video games while girls tend to create new friendships via social media. Despite the majority of teens making new friends online, very few of them (20%) actually meet the new friend in person. These new friendships end up being “virtual” friends.

When it comes to maintaining friendships, texting is critical. Most teens do spend time with their friends in person but not on a daily basis. Therefore, texting is the glue that holds these friendships together. Fifty-Five percent (55%) of teens will text with their friends on a daily basis. As a digital immigrant, I am often alarmed by the amount of texting young people do (as well as how fast they do it!). However, for digital natives, texting has the same purpose as phone calls and not passing?? did for those in my generation. Just like we did when we were young, they like to keep in touch. The venue is just very different.

Teens keep in touch in diverse ways. Nearly all teens use instant messaging (79%) and a similar amount keep in touch with friends on social media (72%). Email is used for connection but not as frequently and not daily. Easy access to video chat means that many teens are connecting using video chat (59%). Additionally, something parents may not think about, over half of teens spend time playing video games with friends. Teens also use messaging apps like kik and whatsapp but less than half of teens keep in touch with these tools.

One of the findings of the study that is relevant, though likely not too surprising, is that most boys are playing video games and many of them are creating and maintaining friendships through this play. Some of this play is with friends in the same room but much of it is via the internet. This frequency of play and social connectivity can make things complicated. There is a very real concern about the addictive nature of video games. Parents often try to manage or cut down the amount of time teens are playing the games. What we need to realize when we do this is that this act may also be increasing the teens’ isolation as a lot of friendship building and maintenance (particularly for boys) is done via the video games.

As with all things, there is a flip side. As helpful and useful digital technology is for creating and maintaining friendships, there can be some downsides. One of the major downsides comes from social media use. Most teens say they feel better connected due to their social media use. However, they feel pressure to post certain types of content on social media. There is pressure to post content that makes the teen look good in the eyes of peers or to post content that they know will be popular and garner lots of likes and comments. Social media postings can also hurt self esteem. Many teens have learned about events via social media that they were not invited to or part of which can lead to the making of negative comparisons. Most teens surveyed (68%) have experienced what they called “drama’ on social media (hey adults do this too!) and 26% of teens have had conflict with their friends based on something posted on line or texted.

So why does this matter? There is a wide cultural gap between digital immigrants and digital natives, even those digital immigrants who have embraced the texting/social media culture. Most parents have concerns for their children’s safety online. Indeed, a study published in the past few days reported that online safety was one of the biggest concerns. This survey shows us that texting, social media, video gaming, and messaging are integral parts of a teen’s social life and perhaps a larger part of how they maintain the bonds of friendship than in-person connection. Therefore, it is unrealistic for fearful parents to ban or completely block their child from using these digital connection outlets. The complete ban of children from these tools will likely result in isolation and decreased quality of friendships.

For fear of sounding like a broken record, parents need to understand that this is the culture. They need to know what their children are doing online. Parents need to talk to their children frequently about what they are doing online. Who are they talking to? How are they meeting people? Who are the online friends they game with? What Instagram accounts do they follow? What are the safety risks in befriending someone on social medial that you don’t actually know?

We cannot avoid technology. We can limit its use by our children, though that might not be entirely realistic. What we can do is talk to our children frequently about their friendships and privacy and safety online.

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