In 2022, everything happens online. Sporting events, business meetings, and even elementary school classrooms have found their way to the digital landscape—and friendships are no exception.
While we used to make friends by sitting next to a new person at lunch or joining a school club, social media and online gaming have made it possible for today’s teens to develop friendships online. In fact, the Pew Research Center reports that up to 57% of teens have made a new friend online—and that percentage is only going to grow as the world gets more and more digital.
If you think about it, it’s pretty cool that today’s teens are able to become digital pen pals with people from all over the world. Making friends online helps teens expand their worldview and gain an appreciation for other cultures. It may even inspire them to pick up a new language! Digital friendships can also be beneficial for teens who face difficulty developing social skills, because they are able to build real-life relationships at a speed that makes them feel comfortable and safe.
However, the Internet can be a pretty frightening place. Hackers, cyberbullies, and child predators all run rampant on social media networks, and they may take advantage of your child’s friendship to cause them harm. While run-ins with these unsavory characters are rare, the risk is ever present. As such, it’s absolutely vital that parents know how to help teens safely navigate their online friendships.
Without further ado, here are five ways parents can help kids manage their online friendships.
1. Talk to Your Teen About Their Online Friendships
Here’s one thing you shouldn’t do: ignore your child’s online friends.
Be open to talking to your kiddo about their online friendships, just as you would their in-person friends. Ask them questions about their friends’ lives, interests, and what your child likes about them. Don’t pass judgment, and be sure that you don’t mitigate the importance of your child’s friendship. Although the friendship is digital, it may be just as important to your child as their school friends.
In addition to learning more about your child’s friends, there’s an ulterior motive to discussing their online friendships. By asking your child questions, you’re simultaneously doing some detective work to determine how real and trustworthy these friends are. If something about your child’s friend feels off, be prepared to have a conversation about dealing with online predators.
2. Help Your Teen Verify Their Friend’s Identity
The Internet can be a scary place, and anyone can pretend to be anyone online—this is called catfishing. Hackers, cyberbullies, and child predators may use this to their advantage, pretending to be someone else in order to do your child harm. To avoid this, help your kiddo verify any new friend’s identity.
The quickest way to verify someone’s identity is through video chat. Encourage your teen to set up an online video chat, and make sure you sit in the room as it happens. If their friends refuse to chat, or put it off more than a few times, they are likely not who they say they are. On the other hand, if the video chat goes well, your child may have just made a new friend for life!
3. Remind Your Teen About Digital Etiquette
Digital friendships are primarily conducted online, and when you’re online, it can be easy to act differently than you would in real life. Remind your child that there is another person on the other end of the screen, and that they should follow digital etiquette to treat them with the same respect they would a friend from school.
Proper digital etiquette comes down to the golden rule: treat others how you want to be treated. To learn more about digital etiquette, check out this article from the Troomi blog! Feel free to browse around a bit while you’re there—the blog contains a lot of really great info!
4. Teach Your Teen to Keep Personal Info Private
This one’s the most basic rule of Internet safety: don’t share personal information.
Sharing personal information online is always risky; hackers and predators can use this info to compromise your child’s safety. As Troomi writer Reagan Fausett reminds us, “personal information not only includes any personal identifiers or bank info, but also any photos or posts that might clue someone in on where your child lives or attends school.” This includes teacher’s names, middle names, and any previous addresses.
Teach your kiddo to keep their conversations with online friends light-hearted and steer away from anything too personal. But let’s be honest, what teen (or adult, for that matter) wants to discuss their banking habits, anyway?
5. Encourage Your Teen to Trust Their Instinct
Human instinct is a pretty miraculous thing—it rarely lies to us. If your child has a gut feeling that something is wrong, teach them to listen to that thought and take action to follow through. Listening to instinct and stepping away from an unsafe situation can save you and your child a lot of heartache.
If your child gets bad vibes from an online friend and is concerned that they may not be who they say they are, they should walk away immediately. It may be a difficult decision, but online it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
Online Friendships Can Be Awesome!
The Internet is an incredible invention. It gives us answers to difficult questions at the drop of a hat, helps us hone our creative minds, and connects us with new friends all around the world.
Unfortunately, it can also be pretty freaky, thanks to unsavory characters like hackers, cyberbullies, and child predators pretending to be people they aren’t. By following these simple tips, however, you and your teen can learn how to manage online friendships safely and effectively. Who knows, they may make a lifelong friend in the process!