Are online friends real friends? My vote is for yes
Virtual friendships are not a sad symbol of modern life. They’re the best thing about the Internet.
By Katie Smith
Afew years ago, one of my two children was diagnosed with complex needs—while I was going through oncology treatment. I had to quit my job to recover from my illness and to give my son one-on-one care. As a single parent, I was more or less housebound. And even if I had a sitter, I was too broke to meet a friend for coffee. I often felt alone and afraid. What helped me more than anything was my virtual friendships: talking with people I’d never met in real life.
I met the rest of my online friends through Facebook, via support groups for adoptive parents and the parents of kids with disabilities, as well as the group I moderated for people fostering dogs. In these niche groups—all of which were private—I was able to chat with people who truly understood the things I was going through. We’d alternate between asking and offering advice, getting real about the struggles and celebrating small successes with virtual high fives.
It’s unlikely I’ll ever meet most of these people in person. Yet thanks to the similarities in our lives and the care we’ve shown one another, I count them among my closest friends and the loudest voices in my cheering squad. Their virtual support even morphed into moving acts of IRL generosity two winters ago, when I was at my lowest. Without me ever asking, some of them sent gifts for my kids, put food on our table, and were the sole reason I had decent boots.
Connecting with people through the Internet is different in many ways from making friends with folks we meet at work, at the school gates or through volunteering. We don’t have non-verbal clues like facial expressions and tone of voice to strengthen our communication, nor are we guaranteed to see each other at the same time and place at a predictable frequency—all things that help people bond. But that doesn’t diminish the value of online relationships. The connections we forge online can suit our life circumstances and meet our specific needs in tangible ways. Even when we’re chatting from behind a screen, ultimately we’re all still humans—hoping for care, connection and support as we go through life’s ups and downs.
What is an online friendship?
Online friendships are non-romantic relationships that develop digitally through one-on-one communications (think direct messages, emails and text or video chats) or via community conversations in a group or forum. These connections are typically forged over a common bond, hobby, identity or experience: There are forums and chat rooms for almost everything, from running to knitting to supporting a loved one with addictions.
As well as joining public and private Facebook groups to make friends, many people find their community by following Instagram or Twitter hashtags that resonate—everything from #caregiversupport to #traumasurvivor to #transisbeautiful. Others connect as regular commenters on blogs and podcasts or within interest-based communities on sites such as Reddit.
There’s also a growing market for apps that help you make friends, which will match you with platonic pals who share anything from your postal code to your fertility struggles. (Examples include NextDoor, Peanut and Bumble BFF.) And let’s not forget that gaming is not just about slaying fellow players. Interactive videogame players can bond using text or voice chat functions within games, and often the conversation shifts from game talk to real talk about whatever a player is going through. In fact, more than half of the gamers who responded to a 2018 Washington Post-University of Massachusetts Lowell poll “considered friendship an essential part of playing.”
What type of person makes friends online?
One in three adults around the world use Facebook, according to a University of Oxford report, and the percentage of American adults using social media in general reached 79 percent in 2019. In our digital world, people from all walks of life connect online for all kinds of reasons.
Emma Noahs*, for instance, is a nurse and the mother of a daughter with Down syndrome. She belongs to a thriving online community of parents of children with this developmental disability. Noahs also struggles with social anxiety; for this reason, she has found such online interactions the most comfortable way for her to get to know people.
“As an introvert who can express myself better in writing than verbally, social media has opened the door to deeper connections than I was able to make in the small city I live in, where I was struggling to get to know people I have things in common with,” she says.
As well as appealing to shyer personality types, online interactions can be more enjoyable for those who have difficulty reading nonverbal communication or for those who feel overwhelmed in crowds or noisy settings. For adults on the autism spectrum, for example, online forums can be a less stressful place to connect and socialize. Facebook groups such as Unashamed Voices of Autism and Autism Support and Discussion Group have tens of thousands of members.
Social media friendships can also be a lifeline for adults whose responsibilities keep them from getting out often—anyone from freelance workers to graduate students to live-in caregivers with family members who depend on them around the clock. David Chin,* age 51, works in IT. A self-proclaimed Disney fanatic, he enjoys chatting about all things Disney in forums and social media groups and on niche YouTube accounts.
“I may tell myself I’m just talking about Disney with my Disney forum friends, but what’s also happening is I’m taking a break from being a caregiver to my husband with cancer—a break I need when I’m stressed,” he says. “At times these forums have been all I have to escape and my online friends, the only people I can talk to on a daily basis outside of work.”
And individuals with unpredictable or anti-social schedules may find it’s only online that they can maintain friendships outside of work. Lara Banowski*, for example, joined a group for people raising kids with epilepsy after her daughter started having seizures. She’s a neonatal intensive care unit nurse who works the night shift, so she couldn’t attend in-person support groups or education events with other parents and caregivers. In a forum, however, she and her online friends—many of whom live in different time zones—can leave questions and words of support at any time of day or night. “As someone with non-traditional work hours, I need non-traditional friendships,” Banowski explains. “Many a dark day, they have gotten me through.”
But are online friendships real friendships?
Internet relationships get a bad rap. One example? News reports are full of stories of people getting catfished, or lured into a relationship by someone using a false persona, particularly in the online dating world.
While you do have to exercise judgement and establish boundaries, when you’re getting to know someone online (more about that later), there’s a huge difference between sending a virtual stranger your life savings and mindfully developing a friendship over shared interests or experiences.
By its very nature, the internet transcends geographical barriers to maintaining friendships. It lets us keep in touch with significant people we originally got to know in real life, even after our circumstances change.
Mo Ahmed*, for example, joined a social media group for the orphanage where decades ago she spent ten years of her childhood. She was able to reconnect with others who also grew up there, some of whom had felt like siblings to her at the time.
“When you are raised in an orphanage, you learn not to talk about your childhood, because the average person has no clue how different your life was,” she says. “I don’t have any [IRL] friends who know what it was like to hope one day you may be chosen when couples came to view children on the weekends, when ‘orphans’ were lined up for viewing.”
Being able to connect with friends who also had this memory helped normalize Ahmed’s feelings about a part of her identity she kept private, and helped to fill in memory gaps and give her a more complete understanding of who she was.
Can you take virtual friendships to the next level?
While some online friendships remain just that, when the possibility arises, virtual connections can also develop into face-to-face friendships. Noahs, for instance, had the opportunity to meet some of her online friends when she attended a Down syndrome community retreat. She was able to spend time with friends she’d gotten to know through comments on posts and the occasional direct message. By relaxing and sharing stories with them in person, she found validation in the feeling she’d always had—that these people were truly her community.
At the retreat, Noahs also discovered that one of her online connections lived in the same small city as her, in southwestern Ontario. They now meet up regularly, and their friendship has deepened over cups of coffee and playdates with their kids. Virtual friendships don’t have to morph into face-to-face ones. But the option is there, and meeting up is a great way to strengthen bonds.
How can you stay safe with online friends?
I moderate several social media support groups, including one for volunteers who foster dogs and two for single parents, so I’m always mindful of safety. A good group has safety advice in its group guidelines and reminds members frequently of how to protect their privacy.
Some guidelines to follow: Remember that there is no such thing as truly private online. Never share personal information such as your work or home address or the names of your children’s schools. Flag unusual interactions with a group moderator and let them know if anyone appears not to be who they say they are or is asking questions that seem inappropriate. And just like relationships that develop face to face, let online relationships deepen gradually, as trust is earned.
If and when it comes to meeting up in person for the first time, the boundaries and safety precautions are similar to those you’d practise in online dating: Meet (and remain) in a public place and let a local friend or loved one know where you’re going and who you’re going to see. They should send a check-in text 20 minutes in to see if all is going well.
Are virtual friendships really such a new and scary thing?
I sometimes wonder why people find it hard to understand virtual friendships. After all, my older relatives talk fondly of the pen pals they had, sometimes for decades—dear friends they might well never meet, from all over the world. Those friendships started through ads in women’s magazines or newspapers and developed into letters full of confidences, which sometimes progressed to phone calls.
While it took longer for a letter to arrive in the mail back then than it does to send a DM today, your pen friend might have been the one person you’d bare your soul to. The very fact that your lives were not intertwined sometimes made it easier to open up about private feelings and day-to-day struggles, according to my mother and aunts.
So perhaps it’s only the medium that has changed? I’ve got no time for the argument that online relationships are a sad symptom of modern life. Virtual friendships have been around forever, they’re good for the soul, and they’re very much the real deal.
*Names have been changed
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