Understanding Online Friends
I grew up in a place where I didn’t speak the language, making opportunities for friendships limited. I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t have anyone in my life yet who was willing to read what I wrote. So I began publishing my writing online and making friends as a young teen, discovering communities where I felt welcome and appreciated.
I still had friends at school and was close with my family, but I felt more confident and fulfilled because I could talk on forums with people who had the same interests—and even as I’ve moved from place to place, I’ve maintained some of those friendships for over a decade.
So I know from experience that there are advantages to letting your kids join online communities and make Internet friends, especially if they feel lonely or misunderstood among their in-person peers.
I also know that there are drawbacks: Being too online in any capacity, especially on social media, can make a person more prone to anxiety and depression. It’s easy to get addicted to the constant stimulation of the Internet, and social media may leave your child struggling with perfectionism. But these are not problems specific to online communities or online friendships, and they can be offset by reducing your children’s screen time.
The reality is that letting your older child make friends online isn’t much more dangerous than dropping them off at a concert or a party: As long as they’re wary of who they talk to, and how much information they give out, they should be fine.
Remember that the younger generation conducts much of their lives in a digital landscape already. This means that preventing them from talking to people online seems, to them, completely arbitrary. Would you only limit your child’s friends to people in a certain zip code?
These friendships are happening organically, especially since COVID-19 has confined most children and teens to their homes—in gaming communities such as Minecraft and Fortnite, on forums that serve a common interest such as Reddit, on Twitter or Tumblr in fandom spaces, or even on Instagram.
Consider that pen pals offered a similar kind of support in the pre-Internet days, bridging physical distance with communication that was often more open, honest, and thoughtful than what could be conducted in-person. According to a study conducted at UCI, the same core qualities of friendship that are present in strong offline friendships are present between close Internet friends as well.
The Dangers of Online Friends
Many parents’ chief concern is that their child will be victim to predators masquerading as people their age. But besides being a rare possibility to begin with, the reality is that if your child is open with you, you’re much more likely to be able to spot any red flags they miss.
“The whole stranger-danger movement did more to create anxiety in children than it did to protect them,” says Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, in this wonderful article by Julie Jargon of the Wall Street Journal. “If you turn everyone you don’t know into a danger, you live in a pretty scary world.”
In other words, teaching your child how to navigate online interactions, and recognize abusive or suspicious behavior—the same things you teach them to protect them offline—will do far more to protect them than trying to ban them from online communities entirely.
My personal experience, and what I’ve heard about in my own communities, is that kids and teens online are most often groomed by people whom they know to be much older. These people make them feel special, often telling them that they are “mature for their age” and building trust over long periods of time.
This behavior is more likely to occur when channels of communication between kids and the adults in their physical spaces are strained or closed—they are seeking attention and respect elsewhere. So it’s vital that your child feels loved and respected at home, and comfortable enough with you that they’re willing to talk about the friends they’re making.
The Dos and Don’ts of Online Friends
As with many aspects of parenting, sometimes only trust and open communication will set your mind at ease about your children’s online friendships. To maintain this communication, your child shouldn’t feel judged when they talk about their Internet friends. Often, they consider those friends as valuable as those in their real life. Treat online friends like you would treat their offline ones: Ask how they’re doing, what they and your child have been doing and talking about, and give advice if there’s any conflict.
Give your kids reason to trust you—don’t snoop through their devices without their permission unless you truly believe they’re in danger, and make them feel safe coming to you when they feel they’re in trouble, even if it may be the result of them breaking a rule. Feeling like they need to keep secrets from you will make it that much easier for them to be manipulated.
Aside from keeping up a relationship of trust with your child, there are some general rules to follow if your child is going to make friends on the Internet safely.
1. Try not to let your kids on social media before the age of thirteen, or at least make sure they’re only interacting with people they know in person—they need time to build friendships and confidence in their physical spaces, and should be mature enough to know what type of people to avoid.
2. Young people should refrain from giving out their full name, where they live, where they go to school, their phone number, photos of their face, and photos with location tracking embedded.
3. Make sure they’re not befriending people who are significantly older than them.
4. Teach them it’s okay to block individuals whom they feel uncertain about, even if there’s no “real reason” beyond their own instinct, and even if they think they will come off as rude.
5. Just as they would avoid bullies in real life, they should also avoid or block anyone who makes cruel comments about others online.
6. They should know explicitly that racist, misogynistic, antisemitic and other destructive language is not okay, even if they use it in a “joking” or “ironic” manner—see this article by Caitlin Gibson of the Washington Post for more information on how memes contribute to radicalization.
7. Kids should still spend the majority of their time offline, have confidence interacting with people in person, and maintain a real life support system: If they begin lacking in these areas, use your Gryphon router to limit their access to WiFi or even just certain websites.
8. Make sure your children are open with you—Gryphon may let you see their browsing history, but you shouldn’t have to stalk them to be aware of their general activity!—and talk with them if they become secretive, there are significant changes in their behavior, or you’re otherwise worried about their safety.
These are all crucial steps in making sure your child is protected, and ensuring they have a healthy relationship with both the Internet and the friends they make there.
All Children Are Different
So if you feel like your child isn't quite mature enough to engage with people their age over the Internet, or if you've had trust issues with them in the past, use your own judgment to determine at what age and to what extent they are allowed to interact with people online. Gryphon can always help you monitor them more securely.
The point is, don't let blind fear lead you to arbitrarily ban your children from communicating with people and developing friendships online. It's hard to adjust when this kind of technology and globalization feels so new, but the reality is that the online world isn't so different from the offline world. There are some dangers, but for the most part it's full of people trying their best, being earnest with each other, and trying to find others whom they can relate to.
Adolescence is a difficult time for many kids, and often lonely. Any friendship is potentially a source of comfort, joy, and growth—even if it's over the Internet.