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Should We Worry About Teens With So Many Virtual Friends?

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The Pew Research Center released a study this month about teens and online connections that found 53 percent of teens 13 to 17 have made new friends online. Twenty percent of those have met these new friends in person.

The research shows boys are more likely than girls to connect virtually (61 percent vs. 52 percent) and that the older the teen, the more likely virtual friends are to exist. Of the 13- to 14-year-olds surveyed, a little more than half acknowledged having at least one virtual friendship. Girls are more likely to find these news friends through social media sites like Facebook or Instagram, while boys initiate virtual friendships more through online gaming sites.

All of which makes me ask: what the what?

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As a mom, I found all this data a bit alarming. I have visions of some TV news exposé that uncovers the online vulnerabilities of our kids and all the creepy, scary, dirty, old unshaven men who are preying on them, pretending to be teens themselves.

Pew says, "Yeah, not so much." (I'm paraphrasing.)

I stepped back and thought about it, though. Then I took out a pen and paper and broke down the people I am connected with through social media. A light bulb went off.

I am a full decade away from having both my sons enter their teen years, but it feels certain to me that online communication is not going away.

A full third of the people I would consider "friends," a word itself that Mark Zuckerberg has single handedly changed the definition of, I met through online channels. Half of those are people I have met in real life. A handful are people I now care for deeply and consider them an important part of my day-to-day life, even if the majority of our communication is conducted via text or online.

As a mom, I'm not alone. Dozens of my friends and "friends" chimed in to share their own experiences with me. Good and close friendships IRL (in real life, yo) had their seeds planted virtually. Connecting online is a bridge to the larger world for moms. And much of the time, it doesn't feel so virtual. These connections are real and important to us.

A great example of this is my friendship with a gal I'll call "Mary." I first noticed Mary online through Facebook when she left consistent messages on my blog's Facebook page that were funny, witty, compassionate and supportive. Mary was there, every day. We clicked and made one another laugh.

Eventually, worrying Mary might find me too forward or guilty of blurring the boundaries of Facebook, I worked up the courage to "friend" her. She accepted. Our banter now extended to my personal life where she saw things that I don't post on my blog's page—photos of my kids, political articles, details of my family ups and downs. I, too, now had the same access to her personal life. Our friendship grew.

Virtual friendships, in teens or adults, are about weighing risks and benefits, trusting instincts and instilling a healthy skepticism, balanced with an open attitude.

Last November, joking about axe murders and funeral wishes, I got on a plane headed across the country to meet Mary, live and in person, for the first time. Yep. Our virtual friendship was confirmed as simply friendship—nothing virtual about it.

In our lives as moms, if we can acknowledge and experience that there is merit and opportunity to cultivating virtual friendships, is it hypocritical to deny these to our teens? When I looked at my own life and practices, it doesn't seem so clear cut to me anymore.

I am a full decade away from having both my sons enter their teen years, but it feels certain to me that online communication is not going away. If anything, they will be exposed to means of communication that I will struggle with understanding, let alone use myself.

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There is a leap of faith involved in monitoring our children's tech use that is the same leap of faith we flirt with ourselves using online networks, albeit with the stakes being higher for our kiddos. Looking at the positive connections I and other mothers get from these friendships, I think the challenge for us is not becoming hypocrites, following the age old "do as I say, not as I do" mantra.

Virtual friendships, in teens or adults, are about weighing risks and benefits, trusting instincts and instilling a healthy skepticism, balanced with an open attitude. I will be adding all of those things to the growing list of things to teach my sons.

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