Feature

As the parents of most teenagers know, today's two-hour telephone calls with friends are often now conducted via marathon text messaging or Facebook sessions. And that cultural shift has psychologists asking lots of questions: What happens to adolescent friendships when so much interpersonal communication is via text? Or when fights between best friends explode via Facebook for all to see? And can "OMG—ROTFL" ("Oh my God! I'm rolling on the floor laughing!") via text really convey the same amusement as hearing the giggles of a best friend?

So far, the answers to those questions are mixed. Margarita Azmitia, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who studies adolescent friendships, is among those who contend that these technologies have only changed some of the ways teens interact. Today's youth still count the friends they see and talk to every day among their closest, she says.

"The [qualities] teens value in friendships, like loyalty and trust, remain the same," Azmitia says. "Technology has just changed some of the ways kids can be friends with each other."

Other psychologists, however, say today's ways of communicating can change the message, and wonder what effect that has on adolescent friendships, and even teens' social development. For example, instead of learning how to handle the give and take of conversation—one of our most basic human attributes and a connection we all crave—teens instead are crafting and often constantly editing witty text responses, says Massachusetts Institute of Technology social psychologist Sherry Turkle, PhD.

"We're losing our sense of the human voice and what it means—the inflections, hesitations and the proof that someone isn't just giving you stock answers," says Turkle, whose book "Alone Together" (2011) is based on 15 years of research and observation of children and adult interactions with technology. "That's a radical thing to do to our relationships."

Outcasts reaching out

One of social networking's greatest benefits is its ability to bring meaningful friendships to people who might otherwise be shunned as outcasts. As research has shown, being friendless in high school can have lifelong consequences on a person's cognitive, social and moral development. In one study, published in School Psychology Review, educational psychologist Beth Doll, PhD, of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, found that friendless adolescents are more likely to be unemployed, aggressive or have poor mental health as adults.

But thanks to text messaging and the Internet, socially anxious teens who might have been left out now have a voice. In a 2010 study with 626 children and teens, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia found that lonely adolescents reported using the Internet to make new friends, and that they communicated online significantly more frequently about personal and intimate topics than those who did not report loneliness. These teens also indicated that they communicated online more frequently because they did not feel as shy, were able to talk more comfortably and dared to say more (Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 2010).

Further, in a 2010 study in Computers in Human Behavior, Malinda Desjarlais, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Northern British Columbia, found that socially anxious teen boys who played computer games with friends reported better friendships than their socially anxious peers who used the computer by themselves. Online games, Desjarlais says, typically allow players to speak to each other via the computer—and the opportunity to communicate without making eye contact may put socially anxious boys at ease.

The Internet's capacity for social connection doesn't only benefit shy and lonely teens. In a study of 63 Cornell University undergraduates, researchers found that people reported higher self-esteem after spending time on their Facebook profile than after time spent looking into a mirror (Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 2011).

"Unlike a mirror, which reminds us of who we really are and may have a negative effect on self-esteem if that image does not match with our ideal, Facebook can show a positive version of ourselves," says Cornell communications professor Jeffrey Hancock, PhD, one of the study's co-authors. "We're not saying that it's a deceptive version of self, but it's a positive one."

New research also suggests that youth who use blogs, websites and email to discuss politics and current events become more socially engaged over time. Students who spent more time seeking out information and participating in political and civic discussions in online communities, for example, reported higher levels of volunteerism, including raising money for charity, working on a local political campaign and increased voting participation, even after controlling for their level of political interest and involvement. The three-year as-yet-unpublished study of 2,500 teens was led by Joseph Kahne, PhD, an education professor at Mills College.

Lyn Mikel Brown, EdD, has seen first-hand the positive effects of the Internet on teen relationships and civic engagement in her job as director of Hardy Girls Healthy Women, a nonprofit girls' advocacy organization based in Waterville, Maine. In one national media literacy program titled Powered by Girls and sponsored by Hardy Girls, teenage girls throughout the United States connect online via the social networking site Ning to discuss pop culture's positive and negative media representations of girls and women and create their own e-zine to raise awareness of these issues.

"It's easy to say that the Internet is bad and filled with porn, and that's the stuff that makes the news," says Brown, professor of education at Colby College. "What doesn't make the news is the degree to which girls are blogging and building coalitions around social and political projects. No, they may not be intimate, long-term relationships, but they impact girls' sense of self in really positive ways because they connect with people who really get them."

A crisis of connection?

But while the Internet may give teens a forum, it may also rob them of the richness of real-life friendships. Time spent online, after all, is time not spent with friends and could lessen the social support teens feel.

For example, a 2010 study with 99 undergraduates led by Holly Schiffrin, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Mary Washington, found that those who spent more time on the Internet reported decreased well-being. Most of the students also reported that the Internet was less useful than face-to-face communication for building relationships and increasing emotional closeness with others (Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 2010).

"I definitely think that technology can be used to build and maintain in-person relations, but it's not a satisfactory substitute for in-person relationships," Schiffrin says.

The Internet—and particularly online social networking websites—may also exacerbate the problems identified in a 2011 study in Personality and Psychology Bulletin. It found that people think their peers are happier than they really are, and this distortion of reality makes people lonely and dissatisfied with life. In the study, Dartmouth College business professor Alexander Jordan, PhD (a student in Stanford's graduate psychology department at the time) asked 80 college freshmen about how often they thought other students had negative experiences, such as getting dumped, receiving a bad grade or feeling overloaded with work.

Students were also asked to estimate how often their peers had positive experiences, such as going out with friends or acing tests.

Overall, the researchers found that students underestimated their peers' negative feelings (by 17 percent) and overestimated their positive emotions (by 6 percent).

"Online social networks are a great example of the type of public venue where people play up the positive and hide the negative, which can lead to the sense that one is alone in one's own struggles," Jordan says.

These findings also suggest that even though we all know we hide our own sad or lonely feelings from others, we don't realize how often others are doing the same.

"This anxiety around always ‘performing' for others via social networking sites may lead to teenagers whose identities are shaped not by self-exploration and time alone to process their thoughts, but by how they are perceived by the online collective," Turkle says.

What remains to be seen is how well adolescent friendships managed via Facebook and text message affect teen development, and ultimately, how today's teens will develop relationships in adulthood, says New York University developmental psychologist Niobe Way, PhD, who has been studying friendships among teenagers for more than two decades. In a 2009 study in Child Development, Way and colleagues found that, among both American and Chinese middle-school students, the emotional support they got from close friends boosted their self-esteem and grade point averages more than support from their parents. Way, author of "Deep Secrets: Boys' Friendships and the Crisis of Connection" (2011), has also found that teenage boys who feel supported by and intimate with their friends are more likely to be academically engaged and do their homework than teens who report low support. Yet as social networking drives teens to decrease their face-to-face time with friends, how much intimacy do they really share?

"We know from the developmental literature that empathy and intimacy are fostered by looking at people's faces and reading people's emotions and spending time together physically," Way says, but it remains to be seen whether that can really be accomplished online. "We also know from the sociological literature that Americans are becoming less empathic and more emotionally disconnected from each other. We are facing a crisis of connection that most assuredly is not effectively addressed by less face-to-face contact."

Online friends can also make it less likely for young adults to create new adult friendships—a move that Way says may even put psychological and physical health in jeopardy.

"It's evident in the research that building real connections can help us thrive in life," Way says. "Friendships are a core part of that, and we just don't take them seriously enough."


Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.