Add “making friends” to the growing roster of reasons why teens can’t seem to take their eyes off their screens. A new study, Teens, Technology and Friendships, released last week from Pew Research Center shows that 57% of teens (ages 13-17) have met at least one new friend online, with nearly 30% making five or more pals. Girls meet people primarily through social media, while boys tend to make acquaintances through gaming or eSports.
While the words “cyberbullying” and “online predator” are still chilling, this study reveals that today’s teenagers are forming deep, personal connections and relationships online. “Adults in our society and parents have this idea that a lot of things teens are doing and video games are frivolous, a waste of time,” says Amanda Lenhart, author of the study and associate director for research at Pew. “But these digital platforms are now incredibly important parts of how teens form meaningful relationships.”
According to her findings, 72% of all teens spend time with friends on social media regularly. This behavior continues on college campuses across the country, and many online interactions have mobilized millennials into real-life communities. In fact, one in five teens have met an online friend in person; what would have been seen as a dangerous act years ago is now increasingly commonplace.
From online to ‘IRL’
The Harry Potter Alliance has done just that. What started as a collective, fervent passion for J.K. Rowling’s franchise has transitioned from online to IRL (in real life) – inciting dozens of college chapters across the country. Founded by Andrew Slack in 2005, the non-profit company advocates for literacy and social awareness. Through the annual Accio Books campaign, chapters have donated almost 200,000 books to global disaster areas and local underprivileged communities. HPA’s Odds in Our Favor campaign uses the popular Hunger Games franchise to promote economic inequality awareness.
Janae Phillips stepped up from her role as chapter organizer at the University of Arizona in 2014 to being the current national chapter director. She studied online communities as an ed-tech master’s student.
Phillips describes HPA as a creative approach to activism, where members anywhere can reach out online for leadership advice and camaraderie, then mirror that back into their real life chapters. “The reason why we’re able to develop (HPA’s) community is because we have this shared interest and passion and fandom,” she says. “It’s a symbiotic relationship.”
“It’s unfortunate that the Internet has been around so long, yet is seen as so distinct,” Phillips continues. “The online space to (millennials) is just part of their daily lives. The connections to real life are offline, too.”
“The more prevalent something is online, the more prevalent it will be in real life,” says Jessica Kotnour, a Kenyon College-bound student and HPA regional liaison. “We use Twitter to bring smaller causes to attention, and once you’re aware of something online, you can make that change in real life.” By using mainstream pop culture coupled with the megaphone of social media, the organization has a much wider reach to garner more support.
Melissa Anelli, HPA board president and co-owner of Mischief Management, an organization that bridges online fandom to real-life connections, emphasizes how her community sprouted from the liberal and activist morals of the Harry Potter books and other cult franchises. “The quality of a fandom with a shared interest goes back to the source material,” she says. “The HPA is ‘Dumbledore’s Army’ in the real world.”
At the University of Michigan, avid online fans players of the League of Legends and Super Smash Bros. games have constructed real-life groups, as well. More than just a competitive team against other online players, Michigan’s League of Legends club emphasizes community, says club president and rising computer science senior Patrick Huang. He defines his club simply as a way to meet people with a common interest in eSports – and the online component only strengthens their bond.
Huang met his first online friend at age 13, and after a series of video calls to verify authenticity and security, they’ve now met multiple times and are still friends to this day. He also met his current college roommate as an online gaming competitor, too, until they met and clicked in person at school. “People nowadays spend a lot of time on Netflix,” Huang explains as an example. “But playing (video) games with friends is given a negative connotation, when it’s actually even more social.”
This article was written by Karen Hua from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.