Thanks to social media the word “friend” has morphed into a term synonymous with acquaintance, associate, and sometimes even straight-up stranger.
Before sites like Facebook and Instagram gave us friends and followers, social interaction wasn’t so passive. It took effort to communicate and connect. The bulk of social exchanges happened in person.
Remember a time when there was no such thing as friend requests? Before social media, friendship could emerge without a label or an outward display of acknowledgement.
Social media has blurred friendship boundaries. Even the term, friend, is used loosely.
How many friends do you have? Wait, are we talking in real life or through social media? The friend count gets confusing.
Nowadays, you meet someone once and after that first encounter you may find yourself digitally connected. Friendship request accepted. A so-called-friendship gets solidified through the channels of social media.
Friendship before Social Media
Let’s think back to the traditional role of a friend as a teen.
It used to be that a friend might meet up with you in the neighborhood to do some exploring and call to check on you when you miss a day of school. You’d crack some inside jokes. Taste in music and personal style might even rub off on each other.
And in cases where hardship smacks down on you, there’s someone to lean on.
There’s give and take. Mutual self-disclosure and trust build a foundation from which to connect.
These type of healthy and genuine friendships still do exist, but there’s some competition.
The average teen has about 300 of those so-called-friends on Facebook. About a third of those Facebook friends are likely to be people your teen has never met in person, a frightening reality for many parents.
Teens, on average, spend more than 40 hours a week staring at a screen of some sort. Laptop. Tablet. Phone. E-reader. Video game. Or all the above. So who is your kid spending all that time chatting with?
But wait, adults aren’t much different when it comes to the size of social networks.
Adults who use Facebook don’t seem to be any more discerning when it comes to accepting and initiating friend requests as the average adult user has 338 Facebook friends.
So what’s the significance of having a large social network?
Dangers of Online Friendships
It turns out the wider the social network, the more inclined teens are to disclose personal information. And lots of it.
Consequently, teens are opening themselves up to sketchy and questionable interactions with strangers, while searching for camaraderie.
More than half of teens provide their email address on social media platforms like Facebook, and a staggering 77% divulge where they attend school. Cell phone numbers and dates of birth are other key pieces of information that many social media users willingly put out there.
Developmentally, adolescence is marked by a yearning for acceptance and belonging. Vulnerability, combined with an open invitation into a teen’s personal world, provides just the right opportunity to be taken advantage of under the guise of friendship.
Consider the tragic death of 13-year-old Nicole Lovell from Blacksburg, Va who went missing for three days before being found dead in a neighboring state. Investigators have reported that she had been using Kik, a text messaging app that allows users to connect through usernames. It is through these online channels that she communicated with the man being charged with her murder.
A teen who is eager to make meaningful social connections can easily find themselves in a precarious situation when a friendship evolves online.
Social Media Impacts Real Friendships
Researchers, like R.I.M. Dunbar from Oxford University, have found fascination with the impact social media circles have on friendships in real life.
Essentially, social media over-extension makes it difficult to maintain the real friendships that transcend the digital realm.
What happens is that people turn to social media to initiate a friendship, when they could have been investing the time and effort in an already established friendship.
Scaling back on your social media time could make room in your schedule for an in-person chat with an old friend to keep you both emotionally connected.
Implications for Parents
Many social media users are now raising kids of their own.
So what are parents modeling to their children about friendship when they accept whatever friend request is waiting in the queue. Or spend more time on social media than they do socializing in person with friends.
Parents, it may be time to conduct a friend purge on social media with your teen, and reignite those conversations about what constitutes a true friendship.
Tips for Parents
Review your child’s social media profiles, along with your own. What kind of personal information is being shared? What are the privacy settings on the account?
What criteria does your child use to determine if they are going to connect with someone on social media? Establish some parameters with your child.
Be open and honest about the benefits and downfalls of social media.
Discuss how social media can impact friendships.
Friend or follow your child on social media. Get with it!
Have your child explain the function and purpose of their various social media accounts.