These days, we spend more time on our phones than ever before. We use our devices for pretty much everything—to get caught up on the latest dumpster fire of news, check work emails, text our parents and even, as it turns out, make new friends.
While keeping in touch with existing friends through online channels like Facebook or through texts is nothing new, there’s a new wave of people having exclusively online friendships.
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As in, becoming friends with people you do not know in real life but through your online connection.
The question is: Are these online friendships actually good for us? Emerging research says maybe not so much. So, whether you already have online friendships or you are curious about them, it may be worth understanding the pros and cons of these relationships. Here’s the lowdown.
What’s Considered an Online Friendship?
First, let’s break down what an online friendship actually is—and what it’s not. An online friendship is essentially when you meet and maintain a relationship with someone online. This could mean networking with people in your industry, flirting on dating apps, DMing influencers back and forth or even chatting with people on message boards. Essentially, there’s little to no chance that you’re going to meet up with these people. The whole point is that you don’t need to do that.
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You could also consider rekindling long lost friendships through social media a type of online friendship. Even though you have an preexisting connection, if you have no intentions of meeting in real life and keep things strictly over chat and message, then this becomes more of an online connection rather than a personal one.
Online friendships are conducted over message and chat, not phone calls or in person meet-ups. This is what truly sets them apart from regular friendships.
The Upsides of Online Friendships
While it may not be healthy to only have online friendships, these kinds of relationships do have some perks. Here are three ways that online friendships can make a positive impact in your life.
You’ll have fun talking to friends online.
Chatting with people online is, to put it simply, fun. Being able to message back and forth with someone can help you get through a long workday, combat boredom when you’re in line at the DMV or just give you something to do when you’re bored. It’s a low stakes way to be social without having to be vulnerable or connect on a deeper level if you don’t want to.
You can easily connect with people.
Connecting online is accessible to everyone with an internet connection. For those with physical challenges, mental health issues or chronic pain, going out with friends can be tough. Messaging with someone online can be done from anywhere, anytime. Not only is it convenient, but it opens the door for connection for those who have trouble being present with friends in more traditional ways.
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You can always find someone available.
In real life, friends have other obligations like family, kids, work, other friends—you name it. Online friends are almost always available since they are just a ping away. If you have a number of online friends by belonging to groups or message boards there is likely someone always available to chat with you.
The Downsides of Online Friendships
While online friendships are convenient and fun, they shouldn’t take the place of real, in-person connection. Not only are humans social creatures who rely on physical and emotional connection with people face to face, but we end up facing some serious issues when we focus solely on online friendships. Here are four ways these friendships can affect people negatively.
You will more time spent online
According to the study about online friendships, researchers found that when people had a preference for online friendships this was related to “increased risk of problematic internet use.” As it’s been documented elsewhere, and often, spending too much time on your phone or computer can have significant physical and mental effects, from eye strain to depression. When you have online friendships, you will likely end up more hooked on your gadgets and this is detrimental to your overall well being.
You could jeopardize in-real-life relationships
When you prioritize online friendships, you will likely neglect your in-person friendships. Online friendships are easier, after all, since they are more convenient and lower stakes emotionally. It’s all too easy to fall into a pattern of messaging friends online more than taking the time to coordinate a coffee date with a real-life friend.
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You might have idealized notions of who your online friends really are.
As anyone who’s ever formed an emotional connection with someone online knows, online relationships can get weird. When you’re not seeing someone face to face it’s easy for your brain (and your heart) to create an idealized version of that person, which is usually a departure from who they actually are. This can be confusing and stressful when your expectations don’t really match reality.
You miss out on the real connecting parts of friendships.
Participants in the aforementioned study who said they prefer online friends over real life friends also had higher fears of intimacy and vulnerability. In this way online friendships become a crutch for not growing emotionally and allowing others to truly know you. As you cling to these online relationships, you miss out of the hard, yet rewarding, experiences that true in-person friendships can bring. It may be more comfortable to have online friends, but face-to-face friends are the ones who can really feed your soul.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to friendships, it’s important to find a healthy balance of in-person and internet friends, if you’re looking to have online friendships. Being part of online communities can certainly make you feel less alone and help bring some lightness and connection to your day-to-day. But having people in your life to whom you can really connect in person is something all of us need at a core level. As long as you’re not letting your online friends come between your real-life relationships, you’ll be just fine.
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