Two things happened yesterday that got me thinking about how teens make and maintain friends in the era of online social networking. This is a topic that comes up in various places from time to time. Because I talked yesterday with library school students about the importance of friends in a teen’s life, and I also heard the hosts of the net@night podcast talk about friends in the social networking world, I thought again about how making friends is different today then it was a decade ago.

Friends are, of course, important to everyone – teens, adults, and children. For teens, friends are an integral part of their ability to develop successfully. Using the language of the Search Institutes’s 40 Developmental Assets, teens gain social competence, support, personal identity, and positive values as a result of their friendships. In other words teens learn who they are, who they want to be, what they believe, and how to behave, at least in part, through their friends.

In the pre-Internet world, most teen friendships were made and maintained in face-to-face situations. It took being able to see each other on a regular basis to really keep a friendship alive. Teens might have friends that moved away or that they met through a special experience, say summer camp for example, but often, in the pre-online social networking world, “real” friendships were those that were regularly face-to-face.

One question to ask when thinking about friendships in the world of online social networking is, is it possible for teens to have deep friendships simply through social networking contact? For example, if a teen meets someone via Facebook (Perhaps the person a teen meets is friend of a cousin that lives in another town – that way we know the virtual friend is not some creep out to get teens on the web.) can those two teens gain social competence, personal identity, positive power, and support through an entirely online relationship?

I’d say they can. Why? Because there is the ability to get to know someone through the multimedia interface of a tool like Facebook. Using the construct of two teens mentioned above who know each other only through Facebook, these teens can:

  • Exchange multimedia – music, movies, photos, etc. via the social networking site. This is something that teens do in the face-to-face world, and it is an important part of a lot of friendships. Being able to let someone hear the song you are currently loving, or see the drawing that you made in class is an important part of friendship building. That can happen on a site like Facebook.
  • Have real-time conversations. A few weeks ago Facebook added chat to the site’s services. That means when on Facebook friends can see when each other is online and have conversations in real-time. So, the teen who lets a Facebook friend in on a favorite piece of music might at the same time start a chat with him to talk about what’s so great about that music. Just like teens do in face-to-face life.
  • Pass notes. Leaving a message on a Facebook wall can be very much like passing notes in class. One teen wants to tell another teen a joke, or draw a crazy picture, or say something silly. That can be done on the wall, and some Facebook super-walls even let you add multimedia to your note.

These are just a few of the ways that friendships built within a social networking platform can be similar to – or even the same as – friendships built within the physical world of a school hallway, basketball court, or summer camp.

Do you consider some of the people you only know via a social networking service to be friends? What about the teens that you serve? Do they consider their Facebook only friendships to be as “real” as their face-to-face friends?

Along with being concerned about how friendships born online can be dangerous, it’s a good idea to also think about how those friendships help fulfill the teen developmental assets, and how adults can support those online friendships by providing access to the various services that help them to exist.

Making friends might not work exactly the same way as it did when blog readers were in middle school and high school. How teens make and keep friends today is something to consider when working towards providing them with the programs and services they want and need.

About Linda W Braun

Linda W Braun is a YALSA Past President, the YALSA CE Consultant, and a learning consultant/project management coordinator at LEO: Librarians & Educators Online.

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