As your children develop and enter the social world outside of your home, their peers' importance to them will grow. In fact, as your children progress through high school, their peer group will exert a sometimes dismayingly great influence over them as you feel your own relationship with them diminish. Basically, being accepted and liked by their peers and having friends becomes a central part of their self-identity. That pursuit of friendship has been dramatically altered by new technology.
At one level, social networking has been a boon to offline friendships. Friends can stay in regular contact, share ideas, feelings, and experiences in real time without the barriers of distance or time that used to limit them. Cyberspace has become to the only place to hang out for a generation of children whose parents are too afraid to allow them to "roam free range."
Additionally, social media affords children the opportunity to practice communication skills, gain confidence in social interactions, and build friendships with the greater comfort that comes with mediated relationships. Social networking also allows children to express themselves in different ways and gauge the reactions of others. There is some evidence that the more time young people spend on social media, the more "virtual empathy" they're able to express, meaning they're able to express concern for others through text messages and social media posts. So, in some ways, online technology has extended the meaning and range of friendships in a positive direction.
Yet, the immersion in technology that is simply life as they know it for digital natives is having an even greater impact on how children view friendships than the benefits I just described. This influence may make the costs outweigh the advantages (you have to be the judge). When you look at how technology has changed the definition and meaning of friendships to children, you'll notice several things that place online friendships in a different sphere than face-to-face friendships. Whereas, in the physical world, the word friend is a noun and a condition ("a friend"), in cyberspace it's a verb and an action ("to friend"). The development of conventional friendships is an incremental process that involves deepening stages of shared communication, trust, and openness. Online, friends are made in the click of a mouse, unilaterally, and with little or no communication between the "friends." Old-school friendships are private, online friendships are decidedly public.
There is one quality in particular that signifies what is perhaps most stark distinction between traditional and online friendships, namely, the former is about the quality of relationships and the latter is often about the quantity of relationships. In real life, the goal is to have a few really good friends. With social media, the goal -- which is obviously in the best interests of the social networking sites -- is to accumulate as many so-called friends as possible. The message that children who spend a great deal of time in these forms of social media is that quantity trumps quality. So children may come to value friendships in terms of numbers rather than depth.
Technology has also created another term in the lexicon of friendships, namely, "defriending." Losing a friend in real life is often, but not always, difficult. Sometimes, friendships fade away with time and absence of contact and the impact on children tends to be minimal. Other times, there is a conflict that precipitates the end of a friendship. In this case, though there may be ill feelings, the break-up is private, there are clear reasons for it, and both children had an understanding and perhaps some control over what happened. In contrast, so-called defriending that occurs through social media can be more painful than losing friends in the real world because it's usually abrupt (a click of a mouse), unexplained, and may be public. Defriending through social media can also be crueler because of the distance and disconnect that technology provides during a conflict. Children tend to be nicer when face to face because they see the impact of their rejection on their friend and, thankfully, most children don't like to hurt others. Do you remember the saying from the 1979 film, Alien? "In space, no one can hear you scream." Well, in today's connected world, that could be modified to "In cyberspace, no one can hear you scream."
With this constant exposure to these messages from technology about what friendships are, a concern is whether those messages will begin to shape how children approach, create, and maintain relationships off line. A follow-up concern is, if this is the case, what are the ramifications of these altered perceptions and experiences of friendships on children's future friendships and the role of friendships in our increasingly technologically mediated culture. Unfortunately, if these concerns are legitimate, by the time we find out, it will be too late.
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