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Are Online Friends Real Friends?

Through video games, fandoms, and social media, you’re interacting with cool people around the world. But can these virtual connections ever truly compete with an in-person bond?

Bernhard Lang/Getty Images; Patrick Sheandell O'Carroll/Media Bakery (top left); Courtesy of Pauline Phan Family (top right); Courtesy of Reagan Zuber family (bottom left); Courtesy of Connor Palmira family (bottom right)

Friendship is a mutual connection between people who make time to offer each other honest advice and support. Frankly, it’s absurd to think that friends made online aren’t able to fulfill that duty! 

Our generation thrives online, and digital communication is the norm. Despite seeing some friends in person during school, we get most of our updates on their lives the same way we do with friends who live three states away—by viewing what they post on social media. 

The reality is, friends can’t physically be with you all the time, which eradicates the possibility of receiving their reassurance and guidance at the exact moment you need it most. But these features of friendship don’t have to be offered in the flesh. Texts and even likes and shares give us the ability to bring our support system with us wherever we go, offering convenient ways for friends to bond and cheer each other on through all of life’s successes and setbacks. 

The Science of Friendship
This mini-doc reveals the innate benefits of friendship and how humans, by nature, are meant to forge bonds.

Based on my experience, online friendships offer a level of authenticity that in-person friendships cannot. Because people can’t see the reaction to their words, they tend to have no filter online, so you get to know them for who they really are. Plus, the internet allows us to talk to people we want to associate with, without a social structure (like school) forcing us to fit into groups.

For example, I love Taylor Swift but had trouble finding fellow fans in my personal life. Yet online, my potential friend group widened as I was exposed to people who openly expressed their fandom through their online profiles. All I had to do to initiate a friendship was introduce myself with a tweet like, “OMG, I’m excited about Taylor Swift’s new song too!”

And I’m glad I did. My online friendships mean a lot to me, because I’m able to express myself with people who understand what I have to say, which builds my confidence and makes me feel loved. At the end of the day, that’s all I could ever ask of a good friend.

5 Fast Facts: Friendship

1. Oxford Dictionaries define friend as: A person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection.

2. The top locations where teens report hanging out with their closest friends are school, someone’s house, and online.

3. More than half of teenagers have made at least one friend online, and 20 percent have met an online friend in person.

4. Sixty-four percent of teens meet their online friends via social media; the rest connect through video games.

5. More than 75 percent of teenagers believe that people are less authentic on social media than they are offline.

There is simply no way to feel real friendship other than by sharing experiences with friends you actually see on a regular basis. And no—constantly video chatting and sending pictures won’t cut it! 

The memories that we make with friends are supposed to last a lifetime. But how memorable can chatting through an electronic device really be? Can you really share a concert with a friend, for example, if he’s not there? No! You’d have to record everything and would miss out on the fun of the show. Plus you wouldn’t see the excitement on your friend’s face, or feel his energy either. 

The truth is, going through life, experiencing high school drama, and being there to give your best friend a hug whenever he or she needs it is what enables people to build trust and grow closer together. Online friendships, on the other hand, create a false sense of support. 

If online friends bring any sort of burden into your life, you know that you can easily detach by blocking or unfollowing them. You don’t feel a responsibility to stick with them through tough times in the same way you would feel committed to supporting the friends you see in person every day.

And that’s only part of the problem. When we connect with people online, we don’t get a full picture of who they are. This is because some people create a different impression of themselves on the internet when they aren’t satisfied with who they are in real life. The pictures they post and the things they say on social media might be made up or exaggerated—so we can never be certain of who we’re dealing with online. 

I’m not saying that it’s a crime to talk to people online. Don’t we all? But if we continue to rely so heavily on digital communication for social support, we’ll lose crucial interpersonal skills. Being able to speak confidently, make eye contact, and respond to different people’s personalities on the spot is what will open the doors to deeper friendships (and better career opportunities!) in the future.

Want the chance to debate a topic in a future issue, just like Sanaa and Luis? Sign up for our Teen Advisory Board!

Here’s how your brain and body respond when you hang with your friends online and IRL.

When people chat face-to-face, they’re likely to touch (think: a hug or high five). This triggers the release of the stress-reducing hormone oxytocin, which generates feelings of love and trust.

Friends hanging out in person also unconsciously mirror each other’s facial expressions and body language. Yup: Your smile really is contagious!

You’re programmed to feel like a rock star whenever you get a text or a like. That’s because the pleasure centers in your brain are set off by short, unpredictable reward cues (i.e., the notifications), which send the feel-good chemical dopamine rushing through your body.

Keeping up with friends’ posts also improves your memory as you store each update for future interactions. (When you see your BFF’s Snapchat story about her vacation, you’ll also want to remember to ask how it went!)

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