Story At A Glance
- Young people are increasingly developing virtual friendships through video games and social media — and these relationships can be authentic and valuable.
- Parents can serve as media mentors, helping their children get the most out of digital media while reducing potential harmful impacts like overuse and feelings of insecurity.
Khysir Carter met the majority of his friends online.
A recent graduate from Agora Cyber Charter School, a Pennsylvania-based online school, the 19-year-old connects with peers through video games such as Borderlands 2 or Grand Theft Auto, where he talks to peers over head sets during live video games. With a few exceptions, Carter has never met these friends in person. And yet he says their bond is not lesser than, or a substitute for, face-to-face relationships.
“We met each other at our worst, you can say,” Carter says, recalling the digital sparks of his truest friendships around the ages of 12 and 13. “We grew up together, we became better men.”
Along with strategizing about God of War, Carter and his friends discuss deep issues, like physical and mental illnesses that they battle in their day-to-day lives.
More than 10 years ago, it was considered a bit taboo, or creepy, for people to have friends who they met on the internet first, says Mimi Ito, an anthropologist and the director of the Connected Learning Lab at the University of California, Irvine, a center that focuses on digital media use between children and adults.
Over the past five years, these attitudes have shifted, Ito says. Online relationships are not only more normalized but can be a healthy part of a young person’s development.
“Friendships that young people develop through these online and interspace communities are really important,” Ito says. “These are relationships that offer, often, a kind of emotional and cultural support that [a teen] might not have at school, where the consequences of being nerdy, or being in a gender minority or sexual minority are really high within peer groups.”
More than 50 percent of teens have made friends online, according to a 2015 report by the Pew Research Center. Further, 81 percent of teens say social media makes them feel more connected to what’s going on in their friends’ lives, according to a 2018 report by Pew.
“Social media today is basically [a] kid’s main lifeline to social connection and peer relations,” Ito says. “Cutting off access to social media is also cutting off access to valuable friendships.”
While some research condemns digital media usage as harmful to a child’s social development, the connected learning lab suggests otherwise. Engaging in digital media can be a source of (nonharmful) fun for parents and children, Ito says.
The child-parent bond
Digital media can include everything from video games to social media applications like YouTube, Instagram, Twitter or Tumblr. Initiating parent-child conversation across these forums can create or mend trust in otherwise tense interactions, Ito says.
Ito used digital media with her son and daughter, who are now 19 and 21, throughout their adolescence. Her son played computer and video games such as Minecraft, while her daughter partook in music fandom on Tumblr.
“While parents have wisdom about social life and mental health and other things, kids know a lot more about what they’re interested in online than parents do,” Ito says.
After the (now defunct) app Vine came out in 2013, Ito received calls from reporters to discuss the phenomenon. Ito’s daughter prepped her on the topic, she says. Likewise, her son became an “explorative export” in the family, demonstrating critical thinking skills in Minecraft that Ito herself could not keep up with, she adds.
As of 2018, more than 80 percent of middle-skilled jobs required digital skills, according to Burning Glass Technologies, an analytics software company that conducts research on the labor market.
“We're not going back to an age where these media don't exist,” says Laurence Steinberg, a leading expert on adolescence and professor of psychology at Temple University. “Virtually all teenagers now have access to the digital world.”
Carter’s digital experience was amplified by his stepfather, who actively played video games with him from when he was about 6 years old to 17 years old, he says. His stepfather watched him while his mother worked.
“If he wasn't making us lunch or dinner, he was playing World of Combat with us, on the PS2 or the Xbox,” Carter says. “We had a lot of conversations about video games and, in that, I felt like I had a friend.”
The two dished out new game strategies that translated to life lessons — like which fictional boss was annoying, and what moves to take to avoid him or her in the next round. Individually, Cater learned tales of Greek mythology from God of War, critical thinking from war games, and character development of superheroes and villains from everything between.
The happiness connection
Statistics regarding digital media’s linkage to happiness varies. Pew research reports that 45 percent of teens say they feel overwhelmed by all the drama on social media, while also noting that 71 percent of teens say that social media makes them feel included, as opposed to feeling insecure.
Steinberg credits this mix to the breadth of the medium.
“There are sites that present kids with information and knowledge that they can use, and there are sites that present kids with information and knowledge that can hurt themselves,” Steinberg says. “How can you possibly classify something that can teach kids about world history but also teach kids how to effectively cut themselves?”
For Carter, taking breaks like alternating “online days” and “offline days,” helps to quell the negative feelings that can result from digital media use.
“With all the good that video games can give you, there’s some bad,” Carter says. He notes struggles with time management and feeling a need for social validation. “But that’s an avoidable bad as long as you can control it.”
When looking at the “avoidable bad,” Steinberg says it is important to view digital media as no different than (or worse than) other types of activities that could be distracting to a teen or child.
“The question I’d worry much more about is what my child is not doing because he’s spending so much time doing this,” Steinberg says. “As a parent, you can go down a checklist in your head, saying, ‘Is my child doing these other activities that I think are important?’ ”
“I wouldn’t worry so much if the answer is yes,” Steinberg adds.