Today’s teen friendships are not as different as we think

From yearbooks to Instagram and Snapchat
Alagich Katya, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Alagich Katya, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

When I was eleven years old, I broke a taboo of yearbook messages. “Have a great summer!” I printed neatly in my friend Phoebe’s yearbook. She protested indignantly, “You can’t just write that! We’re friends!” What I didn’t pick up on then was that classmates wrote, “Have a great summer!” and “Keep in touch!” but friends showed more affection by recounting inside jokes and shared memories.

Several years ago, my younger sister who was then a teen, mentioned the importance of commemorating good friends’ (but not classmates’) birthdays in special ways on Facebook and Instagram. There are many concerns about whether social media disconnects and isolates teens, and I started to wonder whether teens today still show great affection towards their friends, just in new ways.

“Instead of worrying about whether and how social media is changing the nature of friendship, parents can draw on their own experiences to help their teens navigate close friendships that are validated in both offline and online spaces.”

To answer this question, our research team talked with over 50 teens about how they communicate on social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. We learned that there are many actual similarities between how teens interact online and offline.

On Facebook and Instagram, where the teens in our study interacted with both good friends and classmates, teens gave their friends special treatment. They “liked” their friends’ posts and wrote complimentary comments, while classmates only got “likes.” Teens reported that one way they did this was to post photo collages for their close friends’ birthdays with captions that shared how important their friends were to them. Just like in person, teens wanted their friends to feel special and valued.

On Snapchat, where images can be sent directly to friends and disappear after they are viewed, teens in our study showed affection by trying to make each other laugh and by sharing everyday moments. They jokingly teased one another, drawing mustaches on a photo of their friend, and shared silly or unattractive photos that they would not share with anyone else. Teens wanted their friends to be a big part of their lives, even showing them pictures of what they were eating.

On the surface level, teen friendships today look a lot different than they did even a decade ago, but in many ways, they are still the same. Teens still want their good friends to feel loved and cared for, and do not treat classmates with the level of intimacy they show their friends. Friends still laugh together, share secrets, and share their lives with each other, even though these acts now often take place online. Social media enables teens to support their friends and to spend time together when they cannot do so in person.

Instead of worrying about whether and how social media is changing the nature of friendship, parents can draw on their own experiences to help their teens navigate close friendships that are validated in both offline and online spaces.

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