Robin Vo feels certain she can talk to her friend Kristin about anything. They were texting frantically Wednesday about how handsome One Direction member Louis Tomlinson looked at a charity event. Next week, they'll discuss what supplies Vo needs to buy for her new dorm room. The girls text constantly, live near each other and like the same bands, as friends tend to do. But unlike most BFFs, they've only met twice.
Vo, an 18-year-old from Sacramento, and Kristin are online friends who connected on Facebook, progressed to Twitter and later hung out in real life. While the girls don't see each other often, they're extremely close. "Friends are friends regardless of where they come from or how you meet them," Vo said. "It's more that they care about you as a person and want to be there."
A recent Pew Research Center report found 57 percent of all teens have made new friends online. Parents may be worried, but experts aren't concerned. They say online friendships, which often form within teens’ extended networks, are generally OK as long as teens balance the interactions, stay safe and realize the limitations. In fact, the trend could continue as social media grows in scope and popularity.
"This is kind of a new reality," said Andrea Bonior, an adjunct psychology professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., who wrote a book on friendship. "We're getting to the point where, for the upcoming generation, this is just the way it is. There's no going back."
A Life Online
Parents have been fretting -- and teens have been ignoring -- online stranger danger since the advent of the Internet. The allure of digital communication was evident in the popularity of chat rooms: Before AOL debuted its Instant Messenger service in 1997, users were spending 1 million hours a day in more than 14,000 chat rooms. The crowd then shifted to Myspace, which at its peak boasted about 75 million visitors a month even though it tied people's identities to their profiles. Facebook, of course, came next, and now Twitter and Instagram are among the most popular platforms where teens communicate.
Because today's teenagers are digital natives who grew up with technology, it seems logical for them to make friends online, Bonior said. If kids are spending most of their time on the Internet, that's where they're going to form relationships. And they have: Pew found that 72 percent of teenagers said they spent time with friends on social media. The Internet is the No. 3 most popular place where teenagers told Pew they hang out, falling behind "school" and "someone's house" but ahead of "extracurricular activities" and the "neighborhood."
Nearly two-thirds of teens with online friends told Pew they met them via social media, making those websites the most common place to connect online. In second place were networked video games, which boys especially reported using as a prime method of meeting people.
Many of the online friends teens make are people they're already connected to in some way, said Amanda Lenhart, associate director of research at Pew and author of the study. They're often friends or relatives of peers, an added bonus because having a mutual network allows teens to verify their friends’ existence and identities.
Adults may dismiss online friendships as shallow or frivolous, Lenhart said, but teenagers are simply using the Internet as a place to find themselves. “For the most part, we should give teens a little bit more credit than we do,” she said.
Kasey Lemley, an 18-year-old student at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, said she was having a rough time at home when she decided to make a second Twitter account. She couldn't find many mental health resources in her small town, so she started @TheHelpHotline, which now blasts its 25,000 followers with motivational messages throughout the day. People frequently message her looking for someone to listen, and she does.
"They're just as good as real-life friends," Lemley said. "You create a bond with them."
The Only Barrier's A Screen
Possibilities for online friendships are essentially endless. A teen feeling isolated in remote Alaska can log onto Facebook and instantly talk with a person sitting in urban New York City. Someone too socially anxious to talk to a classmate at school may feel more in control of interactions online. Other teens with niche interests -- or even popular ones -- can find communities to discuss them. It’s like having a pen pal or joining a professional listserv.
Online friends can also fill holes real-life friends can’t, said Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a psychologist in Princeton, New Jersey, who focuses on children and parents. The Internet also provides a place for teenagers who need advice on something they can't bring up in person.
For example, imagine "a kid who has questions about his sexuality and goes onto a site where people are posting about their experiences and their questions and suddenly feels, 'Oh, here's my tribe,'" Kennedy-Moore said.
The Internet offers the opportunity to find many "tribes." DeVante Ellis Brown, a 17-year-old student at the University of California, Berkeley, started out as a casual viewer watching people play “Call of Duty” on the live-streaming video game platform Twitch. But as time went on, he started chatting online with other users and eventually became a moderator on several channels.
Their conversations began because of video games, but they’re not restricted anymore, Brown said. “There's honestly barely any difference between my gaming friends and ‘IRL’ [In Real Life] friends,” he said. “We talk about the same type of things. Only real difference is I don't see their faces.”
Online relationships may be more accessible than real-life ones because making contact with someone is instant. More than half of the Pew respondents said they used text messages to spend time with friends every day, compared to 25 percent who said they did so in person. In Brown’s case, all he has to do is sign into Twitch and he’s got dozens of people to talk to.
One time, Brown overheard two younger children at summer camp talking about how they wouldn’t see each other for another year. To compensate for this, they decided they would meet up in the same place at the same time on Minecraft every day. “It really hit me,” Brown said. “The way that friendships can form through gaming is so interesting, and we never know what can emerge from it.”
Hidden Internet Dangers
But while online friendships can be productive, they can also be hurtful. The disconnection from personal interaction inherent in Internet relationships can facilitate bullying -- it’s simply easier to insult someone when you’re not looking at their face. Catfishing, where people pretend to be someone they're not, and the threat of adult predators are also top concerns when teenagers go online.
Kids should set boundaries, and any concerns parents would have with in-person friends should transfer over to online ones, Kennedy-Moore said. These rules are standard: If the relationship isn't reciprocal or makes one person uncomfortable, families should intervene. Online friendships often rely on written words that can be easily captured via screen shot and forwarded, so teenagers need to remember to be careful what they say. They should always make sure they're meeting in public places.
Another downside is that teenagers, like anyone, can choose who they want to be online. Because they're not seeing them on a day-to-day basis, teenagers in online friendships may develop idealized perceptions of their peers. "Much of it is fantasy," Kennedy-Moore said. "It's very easy to look at people's Facebook or their Instagram and say, 'Wow, they're having riotous fun at all times and my life is kind of boring.'"
At the same time, the sense of being liked online can be addictive. Parents need to make sure their children balance online friendships with offline ones, said Kaveri Subrahmanyam, a developmental psychologist at California State University in Los Angeles. Teenagers develop important skills through real-life social interactions, like the ability to make eye contact, read body language and show empathy.
"If their only friends are online and they have no face-to-face friends, I think that's a problem," Subrahmanyam said, adding that the reverse would also be concerning. "They don't magically become a new person online."
A 'Real' Friendship Nonetheless
For many teens, offline friends still usually take precedence over online ones. But the Internet has made it less of a dichotomy. Meaningful relationships are possible in both arenas. "If you can really turn to these friends when you need help and support, then I think it is performing the functions of friendship," Subrahmanyam said.
Leslie Jaffie, a 21-year-old senior at Fitchburg State University in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, who has nearly 7,000 followers on Twitter, said she has different levels of online friends. There are the people she chats about One Direction member Niall Horan with all day on Twitter, then the people she video chats with on her phone, then the people she meets. There are hundreds of users she likes to interact with, “but you're never going to go to dinner with them,” she said.
Jaffie has met her online friends in person twice. A friend from New Mexico came to visit her in New York City and vice versa, and she went to Ireland to visit another. But Jaffie said she walks back friendships with people in places she would never go because it's hard to get emotionally invested.
Still, Jaffie said she considers online friends as good as real ones. They’re her confidants all the same, talking about "everything from the haircut I want to get to shoes to issues with my family or my friends, anything going on in my life, really," she said. "You like the same boy band, so there's not much judgment there."