Are Online Relationships Healthy for Young People?

February 27th, 2013

By Dr. Jim Taylor

Technology and ChildrenMore and more these days, young people are establishing and maintaining relationships online. These “cyber” relationships often arise because parents, out of fear for their children’s safety, no longer allow them to be “free range” to congregate in local parks, at malls, and on street corners. The only place that they have permission to “meet up” is in virtual gatherings such as Facebook, Twitter, and in the “textosphere.” Plus, the reality is that your children are growing up as natives in this digital world, so it is only natural that they spend some of their time in cyberspace.

There are several questions that you must ask as your children immerse themselves in this connected world. First, are the relationships that they build online healthy or harmful? Second, do they foster your children’s long-term positive development? Third, given that disconnecting them from this virtual world is unrealistic, how can you ensure that their online relationships are positive and life-affirming?  

To be sure, many young people these days have well-developed virtual relationships that they consider real. Virtual relationships have all the appearances of real relationships, for example, connectedness, communication, and sharing. Yet, these relationships are missing essential elements that distinguish them from flesh-and-blood relationships, namely, three dimensionality, facial expressions, voice inflection, clear emotional messages, gestures, body language, physical contact, and pheromones.

Online relationships are based on limited information and, as a result, are incomplete; your children can know people online, but only so far. When connecting with others through technology, your children get bits and pieces of people—words on a screen, two-dimensional images, or a digitized voice—almost like having some, but not all, of the pieces of a puzzle. Your children get a picture of others, but they lack the pieces your children need to get a complete picture of that person.

Users of social media tend to present themselves online in ways that are, at a minimum, slightly more positive impressions of their true selves and, at a maximum, entirely distorted and aggrandized self-representations. This type of “impression management” is much easier to do online because recipients of the information aren’t in a position to reality test what they see, read, and hear.

There are several problems with this common online practice. First, it prevents children from acknowledging and accepting that they are imperfect beings like everyone else. Nor can they learn that, despite their flaws, they are still good people worthy of being valued and liked. It is also, intentionally or otherwise, dishonest, not generally a lesson that parents want their children to learn.

As relationships develop online, this practice doesn’t allow the receivers of this information to make reasoned judgments about the kind of relationship they want with the sender of the information. Additionally, this practice, interestingly enough, may deter senders of the less-than-accurate information from migrating an online relationship to a real relationship because then they would be discovered to be imposters.

Impression management is an essential motivator among children to meet their needs for self-esteem and social acceptance. It is also a common practice that children engage in both on and offline. Yet, the ability of children to shape how others view them is much greater online than offline because there is no direct way for others to assess the truth behind the impressions that children present through cyberspace.

The brevity of online communication also mitigates the opportunity for the development of deep relationships. Most forms of social networking, for example, Facebook, Twitter, and texting, involve short and frequent communications that simply don’t provide the platform for the rich sharing of thoughts and emotions, which happen to be the superstructure of relationships.

In addition to the concerns I’ve just expressed, the simple calculus of life is that time spent in online relationships is time not being spent in face-to-face relationships. The lack of experience in engaging in real relationships can hurt your children’s ability to develop healthy relationships in the future. Think of it this way. Relationships arise through experience and require certain skills, for example, reading facial expressions, interpreting voice inflection, and feeling empathy. If your children are missing out on flesh-and-blood relationships because they spend so much time online, then they are also missing out on those opportunities to learn about and practice those skills that enable healthy relationships to develop.

It’s probably no coincidence that the dramatic rise in narcissism and decline in empathy over the past few decades has occurred along side the rise of the information age and the devotion of young people’s time to online pursuits. Of course, your children do engage in plenty of real relationships at home, with friends, and at school and in their other activities. But increasingly, today’s children are spending a significant portion of their days online; they devote, on average, more than seven-and-a-half hours interacting with non-school-related technology. As a result, time in real relationships may be far less than you think and far less than children in past generations had. In a sense, children these days have less time to “practice” relationships and, with less practice, they are going be less skilled at them.

These limitations don’t mean that children shouldn’t have virtual relationships; they can serve a valuable purpose in both children’s social lives. The concern is that, with so much time spent online, children are substituting direct relationships for virtual ones. Rather than being just a small subset of their relationships, unguided and unfettered virtual relationships may come to dominate their relationship universe. For example, I often see groups of teenagers sitting together, but not talking, only texting. I wonder if they’re texting each other!

So what is the attraction of online relationships for children? On the plus side, social networking allows children to stay in regular touch with their friends, which is particularly important for children who don’t see each other in school every day. Cyberspace can act as a meeting place for introductions to new friends that then transfer to actual social interactions. Online relationships can help children get beyond the ill ease that can occur when they first meet by allowing them to get to know each other before they meet in person. They are also a way for children who are shy or socially anxious to practice their “people skills” and gain comfort with new friends before they use those skills in flesh-and-blood relationships.

At the same time, online relationships may provide a bubble of safety and comfort in a social world that can be scary for children. We live in a society in which families are no longer nuclear, communities are fragmented, and children can feel isolated and disenfranchised. A popular culture that venerates “bad boys” and “mean girls” can create feelings of alienation and anxiety. Fears of inadequacy, rejection, and failure, heightened by a popular culture that reveres perfection, popularity, and success, add to the maelstrom of personal angst that children can feel as they explore relationships. Children who are thrown into this cauldron without adequate support or the necessary skills can feel compelled to stay in the cocoon of their own room and connect with people safely through their computer, tablet, or smartphone.

The reality is that children can fulfill many of their needs for connection, affiliation, and affirmation through virtual relationships, however limited and potentially unhealthy that route may be. In doing so, they can come to believe that their needs for friendship and intimacy can be met online without all of the risks and messiness of real-world relationships. The problem is that the absence of messiness also precludes children from experiencing the deep benefits of fully realized relationships that can only exist offline.

You as parents should be cognizant of the quality and quantity of the online relationships that your children are engaged in. I am certainly not advocating that you cut off your children from these relationships. At the same time, their virtual relationships should supplement, not replace, their face-to-face relationships. In sum, I would suggest that the amount of time that your children devote to flesh-and-blood relationships should far outweigh the time spent in online relationships.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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