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Finding Friendship on the Internet

A new report shows online friendship is becoming the mainstream for teenagers.
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A man of many friendships, pictured above. (Photo: Steve/Flickr)

A man of many friendships, pictured above. (Photo: Steve/Flickr)

In a new national survey of 13- to 17-year-olds, the Pew Research Center uncovered some facts about online relationships that might surprise anyone who hasn't spent much time on AIM or Slack: Fifty-seven percent of teenagers have made at least one friend on the Internet, and 29 percent have made more than five.

The Pew report puts paid to the idea that it's difficult, or even uncommon, to make friends on the Internet. Early Web relationships, carried out over bulletin boards and Internet Relay Chats, might have been rare and somewhat awkward to talk about in real life, but today, getting to know someone first via text (or pre-recorded video Snapchats) is a relatively universal experience.

This squares with what Molly Knefel, a Brooklyn-based after-school teacher and host of the podcast Radio Dispatch, notices in her own work with children. "The same way for adults, social media is an extension of your social life," she says. "With kids, it's just another place to hang out." In March, Knefel wrote an essay for the New Inquiry on how the permanent records of social media might shape her students' experiences of childhood. The essay touched off a longstanding dialogue about technology's impact on children's relationships.

"The same way for adults, social media is an extension of your social life. With kids, it's just another place to hang out."

The media through which online relationships are carried out is also changing. The report found that video games played a larger role in friendships over the past two decades, particularly for boys, who are more likely to play than girls (84 percent versus 59 percent). Video games themselves have also become much more social, as everything from the first-person shooter Counter-Strike to massive combat games like League of Legends have become global communities, and not just in-person experiences. "Video games are not simply entertaining media; they also serve as a potent opportunity for socializing for teens with new friends and old," the report finds.

In fact, video games come second only to mammoth social platforms like Facebook and Instagram as a place to make friends online—36 percent of teenagers reported meeting friends through networked video games. While the community aspect certainly plays a role, it also helps that video games encourage a certain amount of anonymity. "Nearly a quarter (23%) of teens report that they would give a new friend their gaming handle as contact information," the report explains. "Fully 38 percent of teen boys would share a gaming handle, compared with 7 percent of teen girls."

While making friends online has become more common, there's also a micro-generational component to Internet relationships. Teens between 15 and 17 years old, who grew up closer to the advent of Facebook as a mainstream platform, are more likely than 13- to 14-year olds to make friends online (60 percent versus 51 percent).

While there's no way of determining causation, the transition from wider social networks the way Facebook presents them—friends of friends beget further friends of friends—to the direct messaging of Snapchat and group-texting apps like Groupme might play a role in this shift. It's easier to interact with more people when comments and exchanges, like those on Facebook posts, are public, and not veiled away in private backchannels.

Much of the social Internet is semi-public, like the arena of Facebook comments that everyone in a friend circle can see. But other exchanges happen in private through Internet-enabled backchannels. These disparate layers of interaction might explain the rise in cyberbullying, as well: As online friendship becomes more common, so does its opposite. A recent study by the Education Development Center in Boston found that the percentage of children being cyberbullied jumped from 14.6 to 21.2 over a six-year period ending in 2012.

If the Internet enables friendships to be created and maintained over distances outside of school, then it also enables negative behavior. The Pew survey echoes the rise of a certain breed of online anxiety. Sixty-eight percent of teenagers who use social media reported that they had "experienced drama among friends" online—that's a higher percentage than those who had made Internet friends. More specifically, one in four teens have fought because of something that happened online or in a text message. (One wonders, who are the three in four who haven't? Maybe they just don't have smartphones.)

Teenagers interact with friends over social networks just about as much as they see each other in person, the Pew survey shows. Are we experiencing a breakdown in what the Internet sociologist and researcher Nathan Jurgenson calls "digital dualism," the mistake of placing a separation between life lived online and off? The reports show that a younger generation certainly takes the Internet seriously as a social medium, even as adults decry its ability to create real connection.

Finally, social behavior for teenagers on the Internet is about as diverse as it is in real life. Twenty-three percent of teens "frequently" experience "people stirring up drama," while 18 percent frequently see "people supporting you through tough times." Eleven percent frequently notice "people posting about things you weren't invited to." The most revolutionary thing about the results might just be their normalcy. Even for teens, online interaction still follows IRL, Knefel says. "It's not so much a part of their lives that it takes over, in my experience."

Disruptions is Kyle Chayka's weekly column for Pacific Standard about personal technology and the way it influences our daily lives.