Of all the things parents worry about, screen time ranks right up there. Every day, there’s a new story on how kids’ dependence on screens means they’re vulnerable to online predators or bullies, that they’re not getting enough exercise and that they aren’t developing proper social skills. There’s been so much glum information about the “digital native” generation that it’s almost hard to believe this newest bit of good news: A report from the Pew Foundation indicates that online time, rather than being a frivolous time-suck, actually allows teens to strengthen their social ties with friends.
Why exactly is this? Shouldn’t kids be outside playing, riding their bikes and hanging at the roller rink like we did? Isn’t that how people make and maintain friendships? Well, not anymore, reports KJ Dell’Antonia at The New York Times Motherlode blog. Kids don’t socialize in person as much as previous generations did for a variety of reasons, ranging from unsafe neighborhoods to parents believing that free-ranging isn’t possible any more. If teens want to have contact with school friends and make new friends, they have to do it online, because no one’s really hanging out in basement rec rooms anymore.
Dell’Antonia speaks with the lead author on the study, Amanda Lenhart, who says “[m]any teenagers can’t choose to go and physically be with their friends […] The online space is a way of expanding teenagers’ ability to be with friends when they aren’t able to be with them in person.”
Fifty-seven percent of teens have made a new friend in the virtual world rather than out in the real world, and 29 percent report having made more than five friends online. Only 20 percent of the teens who’ve made an online friend report meeting that person in real life. Kids seem okay with this state of affairs: They report feeling caught up on their friends’ news and connected to their friends’ feelings—all markers of good relationships. Dell’Antonia writes: “[Sixty-eight] percent of teenage social media users believed friends there supported them through tough or challenging times.”
Frankly, if there’s anyone who can relate to teenagers’ tendency to socialize online, it should be moms. In my teens and 20s, I socialized mostly in person: dinners out, parties, the occasional ski trip. Of course, I used texting and email, but if I wanted to have a heart-to-heart with someone—exchanging the kind of information that develops and cements friendships—we met up for coffee or a drink.
Once I became a mother, new constraints kept me from socializing: the nap schedule, the early bedtime, and now the school calendar and all the commitments that come along with being the parent of a school-aged kid. But moms need social lives too, and what I lacked in attention from real-life friends, I made up for with online socializing: emails, social media, chat rooms. It’s imperfect (I don’t think anything can replace lounging on a friend’s couch while you share a bottle of wine), but it does give me the support and connection I’m not always able to get in the real world.
Teens, too, are making the most of their imperfect circumstances. Maybe they can’t spend time together after school because they live too far from one another, or one kid has violin lessons, or because there’s no safe place to hang out. But they can check in with one another online, chat and confide, just like we might have done back in the day, on the boardwalk or at the pizza shop.
This doesn’t mean there’s no downside at all to managing a lot of one’s social life online. For one, teens are even more vulnerable to the same kind of hurt feelings or envy that adults are: a social media pic of a bunch of pals having a good time without you, for example, might cause a pang, or what Dell’Antonia describes as typical teenage drama—say, a fight over a text message—can be distressing for kids.
In short, no teenager’s social life is conflict-free, whether it’s conducted online or not. Kids are learning to navigate sticky interpersonal dynamics, and drama—whether it comes from the computer, the phone or straight from a friend’s mouth—is inevitable. It’s a relief that some of our concerns about isolation or lousy social skills may be unfounded. I’m going to go online and tell all my friends.