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Virtual Friendships: Why Do Young People Make Friends Online?

2022-08-05T10:19:08+01:00

Last Updated on 5th August 2022

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For this year’s International Friendship Day, we look at why young people are making friends online, what the risks are and provide top tips for you to follow to help keep the young people in your life safer with internet-based friendships.  

Whether you were brought up in the early internet days of MSN Messenger and forums, reached your teenage years as the Facebook phenomenon hit, or grew up without any internet at all, the chances are that you are still using the internet today in some form to communicate with friends and family. Facebook, WhatsApp, and Messenger are just some of the ways we keep in touch and catch up with each other’s lives. 

For most young people today, the online world isn’t just where they maintain friendships but also where they make them. Although this might seem strange to certain generations, the concept of making friends with someone you’ve never met isn’t anything new: organised pen pal services have been around for nearly 100 years!  

In fact, today’s social media bios aren’t that different from the short pen pal profiles once printed in magazines and newspapers, created to connect new friends across the globe, who likely never met.  

What is different is the prevalence with which young people are making friends with people they’ve never met and, of course, the methods in which they are doing so: via the internet. So why is it so common for young people to connect and bond with strangers online and are there any risks involved with online friends?  

illustration of a male and female talking online

Why Make Friends Online?

Although it might be tempting to tell the young person in your care to go outside and play and make friends like people used to, the culture in which our young people are growing up makes this very difficult. Aside from the pandemic, playing outside in the neighbourhood and only coming home when the streetlights turn on isn’t the world in which they have been brought up, for reasons varying from new attitudes on safety, more concentrated populations meaning more traffic, and a changing urban landscape with less open spaces and places to go. Therefore, children today make friends online because the culture in which they are growing up doesn’t afford them the opportunity to play as freely outside to make friends.  

donut chart showing 57%
57% of teens have met a new friend online. Social media and games are the most common places to meet friends.

There are many other reasons why young people make friends online, including:

  • Feeling socially isolated in ‘real life’
  • Living far away from others in their peer group
  • Being or living with people vulnerable to Covid-19
  • Finding it easier to express themselves online

Making friends online is not always born out of responding to a negative situation, of course! In fact, most young people will make friends online as a positive addition to their lives, alongside friends they make through school and hobbies. In today’s culture, becoming friends with people online isn’t necessarily a conscious decision – it’s as natural as becoming friends with people in the same class at school.

How Do Young People Meet Online Friends?

  • Friend-finding apps, like Wink, Hoop and Yubo. Many will be familiar with the function of ‘swiping right’ and ‘swiping left’ – found in popular dating apps, including Tinder. The premise is simple: swiping right expresses interest in chatting further and swiping left moves to the next user. In any case, this function is based on finding others to chat with.
  • Online gaming, such as on multiplayer games like Rocket League and FIFA. Also, with the continued expansion of the Metaverse, we are likely to see a rise in the number of people making online friendships through virtual reality. Young people who like gaming may also meet on associated sites and platforms, such as the online chat platform Discord or watching streamers on Twitch.
Boys are substantially more likely to meet new friends while playing games online (57% vs. 13% of girls).
  • Social media sites. Users can connect through common interest groups, searching for posts via hashtags, friends of friends and some social media sites even suggest new friends to add.
picture of a boy gaming with his headset on and a monitor

Organic Online Friendships

Many young people will find their friends online in as natural a way as they do ‘offline’. It’s just that rather than realising they both love Stranger Things, weekend hikes or BTS while sat beside each other on the school bus, they’ve noticed each other’s post while browsing through hashtags on Instagram or commented on the same Twitter thread.

Although the concept of forums and message boards may be a bit ‘out of fashion’ in digital trends, there are still plenty of people using them for specific interests, hobbies, and passions. For example, there are forums for people to share art they’ve created, photographs they’ve taken and, although not a traditional way to find friends due to its more anonymous nature, Reddit is home to many subreddits for local areas where people have an opportunity to get to know each other or even organise meetups.
Alongside websites for specific interests, fandom communities can be found across all apps, platforms and sites. A fandom is a community of people who are fans of a specific person, team, band or even a lifestyle, such as furries. The level of which they are a fan may be acute enough that it can form part of their daily routine or be an important part of their identity. Having a strong common interest often creates a bond between members of these communities.

Risks

Fake Profiles and Catfishing

Unless apps and platforms implement the use of age verification and facial recognition tools and software, there will always be a risk that users aren’t who they portray themselves to be.

There’s an almost endless list of why someone might create a fake profile – from seeking financial gain through fraud, with the intention of grooming, through to boredom or being unhappy with their appearance and/or real-life circumstances. We go into further details about some of these reasons below.

Bots are also prevalent, although these are more likely to be used to boost someone’s number of followers to self-promote or falsely endorse a brand or product, rather than with the intention of targeting individuals to foster friendships .

Short for robot, a bot is a software programme designed to run repetitive and automated tasks. On social media, bots are usually designed to replicate human-type behaviour with the intention of influencing other users.
Catfishing is a common phenomenon, usually used on dating apps. This relates to the use of a false identity to trick another person into revealing information or images of themselves.
illustration of a catfish sitting at a laptop using a fake identity

Grooming

Building a friendship with someone online can be a tactic used as a part of grooming, most often done by using stolen photos and a made-up persona of someone within the same age bracket. The person grooming could be creating a relationship between them and the young person that is on a friendship level or romantic in nature.

By creating this foundational relationship, a young person may feel they can trust this person and therefore might tell them personal information. That information could put them at risk, such as details that gives away their location, what school they go to or also private information that could be used to bribe and control them in the future.

If a young person believes they are talking to a real friend or an online romantic partner, there is the potential to be convinced, tricked or bribed into sending self-generated child sexual abuse materials.

Self-generated child sexual abuse materials are naked or semi-naked images or videos created by a child or young person that depicts sexual activity. You can learn more about this and get advice on how a young person can take back control of these types of materials in our guide to Self-Generated Images.

Grooming is not always carried out using fake profiles. By the nature of how social media works, a young person might share information that will make them seem vulnerable to grooming and they therefore might become a target. For example, if someone posts about feeling lonely, isolated, their mental health struggles or issues at home. However, it is worth noting that sharing this type of information doesn’t guarantee that a young person will come to harm or be victimised. Click here to find our resources on young people and mental health.

illustration of a laptop showing a Facebook profile on it that is stamped as fake

Cyberbullying and Trolling

It is not unusual to hear young people talking about how their school friendship group has fallen out or the mean words said behind their back by their best friend. However, these types of disagreements and fights can take on a different form when they play out online and can sometimes escalate to worrying levels. This is especially true if there is a core group or community (such as a fandom) that all become involved, and one person becomes a target.

Unlike in a school, a victim who is targeted online can be harassed 24/7 by their bullies, who are often without the limitations of worrying that a parent, carer or teacher might be a witness to their actions.

If a victim is targeted by a group of people online, the bullies might feel that there is a sense of ‘safety in numbers’. In other words, there’s less personal responsibility because everyone else in the friendship group or community is doing it, too. This could take the form of trolling – a subset of cyberbullying that involves sending upsetting, menacing, or irritating comments and messages, often mistakenly labelled as ‘funny’.

Screen Time and Isolation

If a young person is feeling lonely and isolated in ‘real life’, they may turn to the digital world to find friendships and a community. Although this may bring a lot of positives, for some young people there could be risks associated with this, such as:

  • Too much screen time. There is no definitive answer to ‘how much screen time is too much?’, although studies have shown effects include shrinkage in parts of the brain needed for executive function (the part of the brain responsible for tasks like planning, organising, and impulse control), and some psychologists have expressed concern.
  • Exposure to extremism and radicalisation. People who are isolated may be more likely to be indoctrinated to extremist beliefs and communities found online. A longing for a sense of belonging, unhappiness, feeling angry and ‘different’ are some of the factors that might make a young person vulnerable to being targeted by extremist groups.
illustration of a girl on the sofa on her phone

Top Tips

  • Talk about what friendship means. Ask the young person in your life about what friendship looks like to them – how should a friend act? How does a friend make you feel? Discuss together what a ‘warning sign’ might be that someone may not be a real friend, such as pressuring you for your time, money or photos.
  • Ask about their online friends. Just as you would discuss their friends from school or sports club, make talking about online friends just as part of the norm. This way, if something happens with an online friend that upsets or worries them, the young person in your life will feel safe to come to you as you’ve already established a rapport about online friends.
  • Keep calm! Don’t jump to conclusions that all online friends are potential ‘predators’ or have bad purposes – even if the concept of online friendships is unusual to you. Remember that it is quite normal in today’s culture for young people to have friends online that they’ve never met.
  • Talk about catfishing and fake profiles. Learn together some of the tell-tale signs that a profile might not be real, such as a lack of photos or a lack of photos featuring other people. Find more advice on spotting a catfish here.
  • Have conversations about personal information. Encourage the young person in your care to stop and think before putting photos images and posts online or discussing with an online friend anything that may give away personal information. This includes photos in school uniform, checking there’s no address information in the background of a photo (a house number on the door, a letter sitting on a table in the background etc.).
  • Check safety settings and learn how to block and report. Double check your safety settings together to help keep them safer online. You can visit our Safety Centre to find advice and guidance on how to do this on the most popular apps and platforms.
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