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Teenagers' Friendships Online Provide Emotional Support, Study Finds

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From doing homework to reading the news to hanging out with friends, teenagers' lives increasingly take place online.

Friendships that form face-to-face carry over onto Snapchat, Instagram, and other digital platforms. And for the most part, talking with friends online provides the same kind of support and validation for teenagers as seeing friends offline, according to a new review study of teenagers' virtual social interactions.

"People have these concerns that somehow, technology and social media are supplanting relationships or minimizing the emotional intimacy," said Stephanie Reich, co-author of the study and an associate professor of education at the University of California, Irvine, in an interview. But that's not the case, she said.

"The key pieces of friendships, whether you see them in a schoolyard or at the mall, are happening on social media as well."

Lead researcher Joanna Yau and Reich looked at six characteristics that are consistently used to define friendship in research: self-disclosure, validation, companionship, instrumental support, conflict, and conflict resolution.

They identified 36 peer-reviewed articles, book chapters, reports, and presentations about teens' and young adults' interactions on social media platforms that gave examples of these six characteristics. For each of the characteristics, the researchers analyzed the similarities and differences between face-to-face and online interaction.   

The studies they examined demonstrated that friendships fulfill the same emotional needs online that they do in person. For example, teenagers used Snapchat and instant message platforms to both share mundane daily moments and reach out during times of stress. These exchanges build intimacy and trust, just like self-disclosure between friends that happens face-to-face.

Online communication can change the shape of some interactions, said Reich. "A lot of social media platforms don't give you a lot of text or space in which you could really articulate what your point is," she said, often leaving a lot of room for misinterpretation. And conflict on more public platforms—like Facebook—often plays out in front of an audience, which can quickly escalate the stakes.

But even as social media can spark conflict, it can also help diffuse it, she said. In some of Reich's previous research, included in the review paper synthesis, she found that teenagers feel social media provides an avenue for conflict resolution.

"It's emotionally intense to face somebody in person and apologize and hash through stuff," she said. "But if you could text it back and forth, or if you could comment it back and forth, then it's a little bit safer-feeling."

This study doesn't negate other research that links heavy social media use with depression, said Reich. Instead, she said, social media is the site of a variety of interactions and emotional experiences—some that are positive, like friendships, but also some that are negative, like cyberbullying and jealousy.

Because technology creates a social space, researchers need to change the way they think about screen time—time spent interacting with devices, she said.

This shift has already started to take place, she said. Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics lifted its recommendation banning any screen time for children younger than 18 months, allowing video chatting.  

"Technology now being mobile, it weaves within your day. It's not like television, where you sit down and watch TV and you're kind of removed from other things," said Reich. "You're in and out of it, all day long, so to think about screen time as some kind of isolated, quantifiable amount is problematic, or challenging at the least."


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