Friendship in the digital world is an interesting phenomenon, especially amongst teenagers. Since relationships are changing, I feel there’s a need to redefine how we refer to different sorts of friends. On the one hand, teenagers have some friends they know quite well. They probably go to school with, play sports with and hang out with these friends. On the other end of the spectrum, a friend could also be nothing more than a number on a screen.
Given the digital age in which we live, I think we need to split these radically different sorts of friends into two categories. There’s the ‘high-res’ friends (4K) that you see and interact with in real life and real time and ‘low-res’ friends (Internet Friends) that only ever appear as pixelated visages on a screen and may come with some annoying time delay or lag when communicating with them, if you communicate with them at all.
The internet and social media has brought the world so much closer together, especially in terms of people being able to interact with others who have similar shared interests and shared beliefs. However, at the same time, it’s also created a massive disconnect between real friends and those who are often never met in real life, or just appear as a number on a screen.
This can cause significant problems for teenagers as they search for meaningful connections, but especially for teens who struggle making friends at school and who become reliant on the internet for all their socialisation.
The reality is that despite being able to connect with others who may be in similar circumstances or have shared interests, there are many subtle nuances, reactions, facial expressions and body language that go into developing and fostering real friendships. These subtle behaviours and communications are completely lost when those friendships occur online. It’s all these complex subtleties that make up human relationships which are critical to success in all aspects of life and it’s these same complex subtleties, which are most at risk in the digital age.
Whilst some interactions and connections online can be quite good, many should be seen more as the penpals of days gone by where you’d write to someone and learn about their culture through letters, rather than someone suddenly being your new best friend about whom you know very little.
When I was at school, I had a Spanish penpal. We’d write to each other, exchange stories and photos. It was always exciting to get a letter from overseas and through this I gained a wonderful insight into a culture completely different from my own. I enjoyed this a lot, but the reality was that this was a person from another country and quite distant and disconnected from my other friends.
However, as the global network of devices and connectivity grows, the disconnect between people and real relationships increases. The ease at which you can find new ‘friends’ who might have similar interests is remarkable. However, the speed at which these ‘friendships’ fade is also remarkable. It’s almost transactional in nature. ‘I’ll be friends if you like all my posts!’ That sort of thing. However just as fast as the interaction is made possible, people move on to the next person who might, on the surface, appear to be more interesting. The cycle goes on and on and on with friendships being nothing more than superficial at best and toxic and destructive at the other end of the spectrum.
This is the true problem with these low-res friends. It’s often the most vulnerable teens who are searching for friendships online and it’s these teens who need high-res, a.k.a. real friends, they can actually spend time with more than anything else. If they’re experiencing something in life that’s hard or they’re not sure how to deal with it, the low-res friends invariably lose even more resolution and simply fade away into the aethernet. If you have no real connection with anyone, then it’s easy to just leave them in the lurch, especially if helping them makes you feel slightly uncomfortable and many teenagers today don’t like discomfort. It’s a sad harsh reality that needs to be addressed in a meaningful way.
For real relationships to develop and flourish, teenagers need high-res friends, the sort with whom they can go to the park, to the beach, ride bikes, play sport and have sleepovers. I know this may be a way out concept and the paranoid parents of the world don't want to let their children leave the house, as it could be quite scary out there! But the reality is that many of the dangers of the world can now be accessed directly from home. Going outside and playing with real friends is much safer, healthier and leads to far more balanced individuals.
If teenagers understand how to make friends and how to develop friendships in real life with hi-res friends, then equally, they can meet people online and develop friendships over longer distances, through which they can develop a whole range of different and wonderful experiences throughout life with people that have similar interests.
However, the reverse isn’t true. If they make all their friends online first, they have no way of really understanding what relationships are about. They won’t know how to interact with other people properly and in a meaningful way. This problem then flows through to university and the workplace and has the potential to cost a teenager years of their life as they play catchup and try to understand others in the real world around them.
Having said that, low-res friends aren’t all bad because they can open up the world to a whole range of different people which can be wonderful and beneficial. However, the most important thing to begin with is to develop real friendships in real life with high-res friends and then when teenagers have that real world experience, they can go and make as many low-risk friends as they like, but seriously if you’re working through this issue with teenagers, ask them, at the end of the day, what’s more important a high friend count, or friends who count?