Should I be worried my teen is making friends online?

Guy lying on bed using tablet with guitar in background

If your childhood was before Google, Instagram and Snapchat, the digital life your teen leads can be downright confusing. And when it comes to friendships, you might find yourself wondering whether it’s a good idea for your child to be making friends online.

What about cybersafety?

Staying safe online should be a priority for everyone, but teens often need reminding of the basics.

Start by stressing the importance of keeping personal information private - things like their address, birthday, school name or phone number should never be given out to anyone they don’t know in the real world. These details can be used to target them in real life, or fraudulently use their identity.

Just as you’d prepare your kid for bullying in the school playground, it’s also important to warn them of the reality of online bullies and trolls. Encouraging your teenager to talk to you (or someone else they trust) about any negativity they may be experiencing online can go a long way to helping them manage a troll.

Before your kids start interacting with others online, familiarise yourself with the platforms they want to use. This doesn’t necessarily mean jumping on Instagram and following them and their friends, but having a look at the privacy settings of each site can help. All social media platforms will have varying levels of parental privacy controls and, in conversation with your child, you can moderate these to provide an added layer of protection.

Worried about screentime?

Discussing screen time versus active time is a great starting point - and there are easy ways to lead by example. Try suggesting that family time, whether it be an evening walk or a shared meal, is a phone free time for everyone (this means you too!). For more tips check out our piece on balancing active time and screen time here.

Once you’ve covered these basics, take a look at the following reasons why making friends online can be a great thing.

It can be easier to make friends

For teenagers who struggle to make friends in real life, the safety provided by connecting online can give them the security they need to be confident and outgoing with new people. Kids who struggle with face-to-face conversations are able to take their time communicating, without anyone jumping in and interrupting them.

They can connect on common interests

Your teenager’s school friends are probably a motley crew cobbled together by playground politics. The online world opens up new opportunities for your teen to mix with people who have similar interests. Online games, or fan forums for books, movies or music give an instant connection for like-minded kids. These friends are likely to have more in common with them than the kids they sit with in class.

It’s easier to be honest

Studies have shown that young people often find it easier to communicate their insecurities or challenges via social media. The sense of anonymity provided by these forums allows teens to more readily express their feelings and be honest about their struggles. Their friends may also feel more able to offer support or advice via these channels. Encouraging safe, two-way communication can create an outlet for your teen to give and receive support during tough times.

They can find their ‘people’

If your teen has had trouble finding their ‘people’, online friends can provide the mateship and support lacking in their daily lives. Whether they’re from a culturally diverse background, identify as LGBTQIA+ or are from somewhere geographically isolated, there is an online community for literally everyone. There’s no better feeling than being included and the internet is a great place for teens to experience that.

It’s part of how friendships work now

If there’s one thing the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, it’s that even if you’re skeptical of digital platforms and their role in our lives, they can be a vital tool for connecting us and our teens in these unpredictable times. They might not be beginning their friendships online, but most teens now are using online platforms to solidify relationships made in the classroom.

Part of being a parent these days is preparing teens for the world we actually live in. Online platforms are a big part of our teen’s social lives now. As such, teaching your teen to be safe online isn’t too different from teaching them to be safe crossing the road or using a motor vehicle.

Click here for more on how to encourage positive behaviour online.

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