What friendships really look like these days

Nejra Van Zalk and Claire P. Monks preview their book Online Peer Engagement in Adolescence, published by Routledge this month .

The recent quarantine in the UK and many other countries in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that the majority of children and young people will not be attending school or college for some weeks or months. Although they are not physically in the same space as their peers, this has not meant that peer interactions have ceased. In fact, children are more reliant than ever on digital friendships. They are using various platforms to facilitate these interactions; studying with classmates and participating in out of school activities on Zoom and Teams, holding virtual parties on Houseparty, playing together in online games such as Fortnite or using Whatsapp and other forms of social media to connect with friends. This has meant that it is now more important than ever to consider how young people interact online. 

Last year, Elian Fink and Claire Hughes published an insightful commentary in these pages on the importance of children’s friendships. Perhaps surprisingly, there was no mention of digital or online friendships. Young people walk around with powerful computers in their pockets or on their wrists, and these new mediums have been changing the friendship landscape for the past 20 years. We are all almost continuously connected these days, with online and offline social spheres fused as one. Research has simply not kept up with these developments.

A few years ago Routledge contacted us, interested in an academic volume on the theme of online peer engagement. Their aim, we were told, was to provide a definitive tome reflecting what friendships ‘really look like these days’. Instead of the fearmongering or largely one-sided emphasis on how all children and young people were becoming socially inept individuals glued to social media on their smartphones, this would be both sides of the story. We jumped at the opportunity to put the book together with the help of prominent researchers in this field.

The vast majority of young people today have grown up using digital technologies as the main mechanism facilitating social communication, and peer engagement as the older generations know it has forever changed. Smartphones became available during the 1990s, and the 2004 launch of Facebook was followed by an explosion in large social platforms: Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp and more. The use of technology-medicated communication (TMC), which includes various modes of communication through texts, social networking technologies and online games, is now a large part of young people’s lives practically everywhere. Having conducted research on the development of child and adolescent friendships, we were acutely aware that research into the impact on friendship development has lagged behind.

For instance, children’s and young people’s friendship networks can be online-exclusive, offline-exclusive, and conjoint or overlapping. Yet very few studies have attempted to distinguish between these, nor track their stability or change over time. Overlapping social networks, where young people spend time with their current friends both online and offline, but also networks wholly comprising online-only friends, are especially poorly understood. The exponential growth of technological innovation has meant that the majority of traditional boundaries that typically constituted friendships (often constrained by the school you attend or the neighbourhood you live in) have by and large dissolved, not just for children but also for adults. That’s likely to continue: if an ‘Online Peer Engagement’ book were to be written a decade from now, it would likely be called simply ‘Peer Engagement’.

This isn’t just a Western-centric issue. A 2019 Pew Research Center Report indicated that smartphone use is increasing rapidly in emerging economies, and particularly sharply among younger people. For example, in Indonesia, 66 per cent of young people (18-34 years old) owned a smartphone in 2018, compared with 39 per cent in 2015. The comparative increase in the 50+ group was from 2 to 13 per cent. Much has been written in the media and elsewhere about the damage such a technological boom could be having for youth, often without clear empirical evidence. The use of TMC as another way to interact with offline friends, chat or play games, or keep in touch during challenging life transitions, is typically unacknowledged in much research. Friendship quality remains mainly attributed to face-to-face friendship networks with no digital facilitation.  

For a more accurate examination of the impact of TMC, research should aim to explore how young people use various platforms interchangeably to communicate. Research also needs to consider how digital engagement is measured. There has been a reliance on cross-sectional surveys asking individuals to self-report how much time they spend online or on a particular app. However, research from David Ellis and others has shown that we are not particularly accurate at judging how much time we spend on or how often we access our smartphones. Technology can help to a degree, providing more objective measures of which apps people are using and when, but they do not necessarily tell us about the nature of people’s engagement. We’re going to need multiple methods of data collection (including a focus on longitudinal studies) to get to grips with the nuances of online engagement. There are rapid and promising developments in the ways in which technology can aid research, but it is vital that these are considered within the framework of ethical protection for participants.

The contributions from our book do indicate that there are some risks for adolescents in engaging in online communication with peers, including exposure to cyberbullying and aggression, as well as the potential for compulsive internet use. There are also newer forms of interaction which are facilitated through TMC, including ‘sexting’, which may bring possible risks when images are shared beyond the intended recipient. But the chapters also consider increased social capital and the development of new relationships. Young people are using TMC to further enhance their relationships with peers, communicating with friends outside of school time as well as increasing their feelings of closeness within dating relationships. The authors have also highlighted important potential positive future uses for digital technologies, using these to identify and support young people who may be at risk.

It is clear that online communication is here to stay, and it is therefore vital that research and education go hand-in-hand to ensure that young people are educated in how to stay safe online whilst enjoying the benefits of digital communication. Ongoing developments in technology are providing researchers with new tools to examine the how and why of TMC in more depth. We are excited about what the future has to hold. As a research community, it’s time to provide evidence-based approaches to support young people’s development in a digital age.

- Dr Nejra van Zalk is an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, based at Imperial College London.
- Dr Claire Monks is at the University of Greenwich.

Online Peer Engagement in Adolescence: Positive and Negative Aspects of Online Social Interaction is available from 24 April.

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