This paper was the final for a class/module in Youth and Communication Technology in 2015.
In a new digital age, online friendships play a significant role in social skill development for many adolescents. From online fan communities to multiplayer video games, the ability to meet people online has opened up incredible opportunities to learn from people all over the world (Cole & Griffiths, 2007; Harrison & Thomas, 2009). That being said, public discourse on the formation of online friendships among young people is incredibly varied. Media outlets often show coverage of adolescents who are victimized by people they met online, suggesting that online communities are full of scary predators (Tynes, 2007). While there are certainly risks, there are also can be many psychosocial benefits of online friendships for adolescents (Tynes, 2007).
This paper will begin by discussing the prevalence of online friendships among adolescents and the demographic and psychographic groups most likely to form close online friendships to provide a scope for the topic and highlight key trends that impact the benefits experienced by adolescents. Research reinforces the stereotypical idea of the most popular demographic group being older white teenage girls, but that trend is not as strong as some may expect (Wolak, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2003). Also, adolescents with unideal family dynamics or significant personal struggles were most likely to have online friends, a factor that is closely considered when discussing possible psychosocial benefits (Wolak et al., 2003). The primary benefits analyzed were the possibility to find social support that does not exist in the local community around the adolescent and new opportunities for learning. Both occur slightly differently depending on the online community facilitating the friendship formation, but there are overall trends in the impact on identity formation, having a safe space for self-disclosure, seeking advice from informal experts, and expanding cultural knowledge. Lastly, this paper discusses the risks of online friendships and ways to mitigate those risks without removing the benefits. Overall, the multiple psychosocial benefits of making online friendships are worth the potential risks if parents create a safe space for dialogue about the friendships and help guide their adolescents in how to handle risks if they do encounter them during their time online.