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Filtering Your Friends

Social media not only helps teens to find people to chat with, but also allows users to find solid friendships, further their careers, and find life-changing support.

At fifteen years old, Paige Benjamin knew she wanted to work for Seventeen magazine. She had the drive, enthusiasm, and hunger to work in the magazine industry, but was missing connections. She was in Indiana, but everyone she needed to connect with was in New York. Like many teens might, she took to the internet.

Pew Research cites social media as one of the most popular places to meet new people online and has found that 60 percent of teens ages fifteen to seventeen have made a new friend online. Teens are using social media now more than ever as a tool to make career connections, make new friends, and gain social support.

Career Connections

Paige sat next to her father on the two-hour flight from Indiana to New York. They weren’t on vacation, but he was with her as protection in the unlikely (but certainly possible) event that the person she was meeting was an axe murderer. After seven months of tweeting and talking over social media, Paige was about to meet her online friend for the first time. This friend, she believed, could jumpstart her career.

Four years ago, Paige scoured Seventeen’s website and found the name of someone who might be able to get her in: Lauren Ladnier. Her fingers hovered over the keyboard, ready to type an email. She paused. Lauren probably got a thousand emails a day from people just like Paige, seeking internships. Why not take a more personal approach?

Paige toggled over to the familiar blue square with the white bird inside: Twitter. She easily found Lauren’s page and read some of her recent tweets before sending Lauren a Direct Message.

She asked for Lauren’s advice on breaking into the magazine industry at a young age and which internships she should pursue. Lauren responded with information about an internship and what it was like to live in New York.

Before long, they were talking every day. Despite an age difference of four years, they became fast friends. The conversation shifted from career-driven topics to sending each other pictures of Harry Styles and bonding over everyday things.

Social media allowed Paige to find someone who was interested and experienced in the same areas she was. It allowed her to make an intentional connection with someone.

With platforms being used to meet people online more than ever before, Paige’s experience is hardly rare. Pew Research reports that 57 percent of teens cultivate online friendships.

Paige flew to New York to meet Lauren six months after they began talking online. Paige toured Lauren’s college on the Upper East Side and shadowed her at Seventeen.

Meeting in person was weird at first, but it felt right. Paige and Lauren had been talking so frequently that seeing each other just solidified an existing relationship. Paige’s dad felt comfortable enough to stay at the airport, where he hopped on a plane home and left Paige to explore the city with her friend.

They took a classic yellow New York taxi to Lauren’s apartment. Later, Paige met Lauren’s co-workers at Seventeen. An online connection helped her make face-to-face connections with people she would later work with.

Paige fell in love with the vibrant, fast-paced life that flowed through the city. On her last day there, Lauren walked her to a cab that was waiting to take her back to the airport. Paige didn’t want to go. Here, in New York, talking to her friend wasn’t restricted to 140 characters. It wasn’t through a screen. She didn’t want to go back to Indiana; she wanted to start her life and career now. Tears welled up and rolled down her face as she realized that New York was where she belonged.

Now, four years later, Paige has established herself in New York City, even though she has since moved to pursue an internship. She is a sophomore at Laboratory Institute of Merchandising (LIM college), the same school she shadowed the first time she met Lauren in 2012. Instead of a two-hour flight, she could take an easy ten-minute ride to Lauren’s apartment. Though only 20 percent of online friendships result in face-to-face interactions, according to Pew Research, Lauren and Paige’s relationship has gone beyond that and evolved into a lifelong friendship.

Lauren helped Paige transition to college and introduced her to a solid support system in New York. Following in Lauren’s footsteps, Paige interned at Nylon magazine and Epic Records in NYC. She moved to Orlando to intern with Disney this spring, and will head to Los Angeles in the summer to work with Seventeen magazine.

Paige credits her success to Lauren’s friendship and guidance—a connection that wouldn’t have been possible without social media.

She still uses social media to make connections and find friends in the city. Because this is such an effective way to reach people quickly and directly, 24 percent of teens are on their phones “almost constantly,” according to the Association for Psychological Science.

Reaching out to people through social media is almost the technological equivalent of tapping them on the shoulder. Paige’s favorite tool is Instagram, the sunset-colored camera app through which users can scroll through pictures and upload their own. This is a popular way for teens to make new friends. According to Pew Research, 64 percent of teenagers who had an online friendship found their online friend through social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. When Paige tries to make new friends on Instagram, she looks through the app for people who have great style, an interesting job, or cool friends.She will follow them and wait to see if they follow her back. From there, she might message them or like a few pictures they post. Sometimes, for Paige, friendship is only a double tap away.

Losing Reality

Hannah Stivenson met her best friend Kelsey on Twitter. It started back in 2012, with a conversation about the stars of that year’s season of American Idol. Through tweets, they discovered that they had a lot in common and began Skyping almost every day. They became very close, despite Hannah living in Pennsylvania while Kelsey lived in Vancouver. Hannah found it comforting to have someone to talk to who lived 2,813 miles away and could offer perspective on Hannah’s problems, without the emotion that comes with being involved in them. Hannah counted on her online friend for unbiased opinions on drama with her real life friends, stress from school, and everything in between.

In a report by Pew Research Center, 85 percent of teen social media users reported that social media gives them a platform to open up and show different aspects of their personality than they would in real life. However, this ability to form deep, personal connections is not all positive. Throughout her three-year long friendship with Kelsey, Hannah lost other real life friends. Part of this is because Hannah and her online friend were able to open up and connect in a way that Hannah could not with her other friends.

Hannah and her real-life friend group spent almost every day together. Sometimes, Hannah would feel down and need to take a break from them to collect herself. When she would try to distance herself from them, they didn’t understand. They had expectations of how she was supposed to act and what she was supposed to do, and when she defected from these, it was hard on them. Madeleine J. George, author of Seven Fears and the Science of How Mobile Technologies May Be Influencing Adolescents in the Digital Age, says her research has found that when teens use social media and technology, they show fewer signs of being depressed or experiencing anxiety.

Even when things weren’t great with her real-life friends, Hannah had Kelsey to lean on, laugh with, and trust in. Kelsey was there to listen without judging and always gave her honest advice.

Hannah and Kelsey vent to each other regularly about the people in their lives. Hannah feels that it’s important to have someone in your life who can be trusted and is outside your immediate friend group.

With the three-hour time difference separating them, Hannah and Kelsey have to put effort into planning FaceTime sessions and making sure they talk regularly. There’s equal effort put into the relationship, something that was lacking in her other friendships.To them, it’s worth more than an easy in-person friendship that can be taken for granted.

Hannah and Kelsey have remained close even through life events that may have challenged in person friendships. They’ve remained friends as Hannah went off to college at Point Park University and Kelsey began working full time. Hannah says that because of the support and connection they’ve grown, she knows they will be lifelong friends.

Social Support

The access social media provides to meeting similar people can also be incredibly meaningful for those who struggle to make safe friendships in real life. According to a study done by the University of New Hampshire, lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals are at a higher risk of experiencing adversity during their teenage years than straight, cisgender people. These experiences can include abuse, isolation and negative stereotypes, among other challenges.

The research offers insight on how the internet has been instrumental in fostering an online community and support system by providing a platform on which to gain information, safely express oneself authentically without fear of physical harm, make online relationships and become part of a community. Pew Research Center reports that 68 percent of teens who engage in social media had online friends who helped them get through a tough situation.

Surrounded by people in her local community who have made it clear to her that they don’t believe she deserves to use the women’s restroom, or to get adequate medical care without discrimination based on the fact that she is a transgender woman, Vivian Andry has found close online friendships that have not only comforted her, but have, in her words, kept her alive.

As a transgender woman surrounded by bigotry and judgment in her local community in Virginia Beach, social media enabled her to create an online community of like-minded and supportive people. People who understood her struggles because they had been through it too. Friends. Solid, reliable, understanding friends, even if they had never met face-to-face. Social media was a vital tool that Vivian used to connect with people she wanted to talk to, instead of being limited to the people who are around her.

Vivian’s online friendships have not only served as support, she’s been able to provide solace and reassurance for others through social media as well. Madeleine George’s research has shown that online friendships can be especially important to young people who are in a vulnerable situation, and can be a venue for them to safely figure out who they are in a secure and comfortable setting. Social media also allows people to have standards when looking for a friend, and assist them in sifting through to find someone who can engage in a safe and rewarding friendship. This type of online community can have meaningful benefits for someone who feels isolated and alone in real life. In a study conducted by Developmental Psychology, teens were isolated and were allowed “solitary gameplay” or online messaging to pass the time. Those who has access to online messaging had a higher morale, better self-confidence, and felt less lonely. The results of the study also found that online support may help young adults to overcome an experience of social exclusion.

An online friendship doesn’t have to move offline like Paige and Lauren’s friendship did to make an impact, but Vivian strongly believes that friendships should include an in-person experience to reach their full potential. There’s no emoji that compares to hugging someone and physically expressing your affection by squeezing the living daylights out of them. However, Vivian expresses that many online friends simply don’t have the resources to ever meet. But that doesn’t decrease the benefit or strength of the relationship. According to Madeleine George, the experiences shared and emotional connection (the content of the friendships) is more important than the context it is happening in.

Keeping up with the needs of a real life friendship can be really challenging and intimidating. Getting the courage to introduce yourself to someone new can be hard, and there are other factors like money to hang out and transportation. These things aren’t an issue with an online friend. In Vivian’s opinion, “a great online friend is much more valuable than than a mediocre in-person friend.”

She’s found sincere people and deep human connections that changed her life—they just happened to be online.

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