Increased digital trust results in growth of online friendships

Alex Lisa | Staff Writer

Some kids at Mason High School are finding friendships in the most unusual places.  

Many students have found comfort and support in friends they interact with exclusively online. They confide in them and build close relationships despite never having met in real life. Due to warnings about strangers online, freshman Joel Steinbicker said he refers to the digital friends he regularly contacts by their usernames only, but this does not inhibit their relationship.

“It started as a kind of caution thing,” Steinbicker said. “You always hear to be careful with people online, and I was hesitant with them in general to start with. But now it’s just habit. Like, it would be weird if they started calling me ‘Joel’ at this point. Like if you start calling someone by their full name after calling them a nickname for years. That isn’t how we know each other.”

Steinbicker met his online friends while playing video games with random team selections, and then began following them on Instagram. This is a common way to meet new people online, as multiple games use the feature. Meeting through a common interest, he said, helped him grow comfortable around them.

“Obviously I have friends in school and my neighborhood too, but when we want to meet up we’ve got to make plans, and sometimes not everyone wants to do the same thing, so it takes a lot of time,” Steinbicker said. “With online friends, there’s way less effort involved. We’re just online at the same time, and we all play Fortnite together and talk on the headsets. It’s more casual.”

Freshman Nate Schmidt also enjoys making online friends who share the same interests in gaming. He, however, meets his friends through discord servers that popular Youtubers or streamers have.

“I’m more comfortable getting to know someone online, because we met through a common interest, and if it turns out being awkward, it’s way easier to leave,” Schmidt said. “I know we like the same Youtubers, and I know we know about the same games, so it kind of gets you past a lot of the introduction stage. You can just go straight into talking about what you both enjoy.”

Schmidt said that the relationships he has with online friends end up being the same as real life friends, even though he feels that online friendships progress faster.

“If people think online friendships are weird, they’re really not,” Schmidt said. “They end up being basically the same as real-life friends. You don’t need to have that in-person connection; honestly the talking is what builds the friendship. And doing that online is much easier. Maybe that’s because I can think more about my words before I send them, I feel comfortable talking with them much faster.”

Freshman Nyla Spencer also has online friends, though she originally met them through Instagram, not a video game. She said she started one of her closer relationships when she was searching the app’s recommended page and decided to make a comment on a post.

“I’m not really sure how it happened, to be honest,” Spencer said. “I commented on this one girl’s post with heart eyes, cause she looked pretty, and she said thanks, you know, and we went back and forth a little. Then, like a week later, I was somehow in a group chat with her and a few other girls, and now we talk all the time. We’re all the same in physical appearance, light skinned African Americans, teenage girls, so we have a lot of the same issues. We rant about what’s stressing us out, we talk about some of our problems and open up to each other, [and] we hype each other up.”

 

From left: Freshmen Nyla Spencer, Nate Schmidt, and junior Emily Plummer with their online friends.

 

While online friendships are becoming more popular, they have different expectations than friendships in school or in a community. Spencer said her and her online friends sometimes go a month without talking, but when they start a conversation it is long and positive enough to help her with self confidence in her daily life.

“These text conversations, they last for like, a week straight,” Spencer said. “My phone will just be constantly buzzing with messages that just boost my confidence. Like, we build each other up so much, it’s almost ridiculous, but it makes me feel so awesome.”

Spencer said the security she feels when talking to online friends is appealing when contrasted with the self-consciousness that comes with friends in real life.

“I know these girls aren’t talking behind my back,” Spencer said. “Who are they going to spread rumors to? Two of them are in Texas, and I think there’s one in Wisconsin. It’s just so much easier when you know you can talk about anything, and when you don’t have to worry about watching what you say when you open up.”

Junior Emily Plummer agreed the distance between herself and her online friends helps her feel safe because there are less repercussions when she wants to rant or let out emotions.

“I think it’s a lot easier to open up to (people online) because you don’t see them face-to-face, and they’re distanced from things,” Plummer said. “Like, if I’m going on a rant about people in school, they don’t know those people. It makes it more comfortable than talking to someone who might know that person.”

Plummer started her friendships on Kik around eighth grade year, something she said was popular in middle school. However, she ended up leaving the website because of its “sketchiness.” Many of her friendships have been maintained despite this through Instagram and texting when their time zones match up.

“One of them lives in Australia, and a few live in the UK, so we’re kind of pen pals,” Plummer said. “It makes talking hard sometimes, because of the time difference, but it’s cool. A lot of my (Mason) friends will hear me talk about a friend I met online, and then they want an online friend so sometimes I make suggestions. They kind of see it as a cool connection to have. I think it’s healthy for everyone to have someone who they know there’s a state or an ocean between them. The distance makes your conversations lighter.”

Graphics by Ryan D’Souza.

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