Children and young people meet new friends not only on the playground, at school or at the sports club. You meet them in online games or on Instagram and stay in touch via WhatsApp and Discord in contact.
Not all friendships are the same: acquaintances from social media can look different than friendships from the neighborhood or school. Being close to the influencer may feel like a friendship to some, but it’s more of a “fanhood.”
Online friendships are formed over the Internet and are largely maintained there. They come about through common interests, for example. In online games or via social media channels, children and young people with similar interests and hobbies get to know and talk to each other. Especially those who have special interests can find like-minded people via the Internet and exchange ideas with them about the shared hobby.
In popular games such as Fortnite, players can exchange information via chat. In addition to tactics and strategies for the game, personal matters are often discussed there. By playing with each other on a regular basis, a bond builds and a sense of friendship quickly develops. If you want to understand how gamers bond over a game, listen in on the podcast of two young gamers.
Online friendships are not necessarily more superficial than contacts in the real world. For more withdrawn or insecure kids, reaching out to others online can be a great way to connect. It may cause them to open up more. Appearances such as clothing often do not play a role. Communication is easier and through the common interest they come into conversation more easily.
No matter where friendships are formed, they are usually maintained via Messenger or social media. Gamers are very fond of Discord is very popular with gamers. WhatsApp & Co. are important for young people who have not met online to keep in touch outside of face-to-face meetings. Read also our article Communication via media – what is important for young people. Especially during the pandemic, many contacts have to limit themselves to digital exchanges and friendships largely take place online.
Online friendships offer the opportunity to be friends with people all over the world and expand your child’s horizons. But digital contact also harbors risks.
Your child does not know exactly who is really behind the new boyfriend or girlfriend and what the person’s intentions are. There is a risk of cybergrooming. People with political interests or extremist groups also use contact with young people to gain influence. Photos and careless messages can also give strangers access to sensitive information about your child. Information such as full name or address can fall into the wrong hands and be misused.
Because of these potential dangers, it is important that you guide your child in their media use. Depending on the age, you should be there when it surfs the net or at least be approachable for questions and problems. Show interest and make your child feel that he or she can count on your support. While you should educate about risks, stay positive, toward your child’s new contacts. This way, even if your child has embarrassing problems or wants to meet, he or she will come to you.
Talk to your child about risks such as cybergrooming and make them aware that the Internet is a public space that anyone can access. This can reinforce your child’s healthy distrust of strangers.
Together, make rules for dealing with online friendships. For example, you could agree that no information about address, last name or the address of the school, nor private pictures will be shared on the Internet. Also, make sure that location features are disabled on your child’s device.
For the time being, before meeting, your child could talk to his or her friends via a video telephony tool communicate. This way you can be sure that no one else is hiding behind the profile.
If a “real” date is planned, arrange to meet in a public place such as a coffee shop. Younger children should also be accompanied by their parents at the first meeting.
Online friendships are a great way for your child to share his or her interests with other kids and make new connections. But encourage child to have more than just digital friendships. Real-world contact with peers is also important.