The internet is a big part of Sarah Harrison’s life.
The 21-year-old from Halifax is part of generation Z — a demographic that grew up using social media — and to an extent, it’s changed how she sees the world.
“We’re spending more time online, we’re more connected to people online … it’s a part of our society, our culture, what we do everyday,” she told Global News.
Harrison’s experience isn’t uncommon. generation Z expert Connor Blakley calls those born between 1997 and 2012 “technology natives.” (The start and end dates are currently a topic of debate for experts in the field.)
“In comparison with millennials, we grew up with technology, whereas they grew into it. They had a ‘regular’ cellphone, iPhone, iPad, laptop… but we haven’t known a world where we haven’t been able to FaceTime a friend, order a pizza and call our mom at the same time,” Blakley previously told Global News.
However, young Canadian girls may be spending more time online than previously thought.
Researchers at Girl Guides of Canada recently surveyed 1,000 girls ages 10 to 18 from across the country, and found many of them spend too much time online.
Canadian girls reported having an average of three “real life” friends versus 13 online-only friends. But they also said they felt more connected to “real life” friends vs. online friends.
What’s more, researchers found that girls who spend more time interacting online than with friends in real life are more likely to have lower levels of social trust.
These results confirmed what the team at Girl Guides had already theorized about the “importance of building in-person relationships,” said Andi Argast. She’s the evidence and insight lead at Girl Guides of Canada.
“We were a little surprised that girls have so many online friends compared to close friends they see in person, but this does demonstrate how much of girls’ lives are online now,” Argast said.
“What really stood out for us what just how strong an impact real-life friendships have on girls’ lives. These are the connections that give girls a boost in terms of feeling listened to, accepted and supported.”
Miriam Kirmayer can attest to the power of real-life friendships in making someone feel socially connected. She’s a relationship expert and therapist in Montreal.
The power of a real-life friendship
Real-life friendships allow people to “feel seen and appreciated and chosen for who you actually are,” Kirmayer told Global News.
A big difference between friendships and other relationships is that the former are voluntary. When someone decides to be you’re friend in real life, it’s a large commitment — one that takes effort to maintain.
In real-life friendships, we “stay connected and stay involved in each other’s lives, and there isn’t necessarily the same expectation for our other relationships,” she said.
There is also evidence to suggest that real-life friendships are more intimate because “we tend to be more disclosing in person than online.”
“We tend to open up about all kinds of experiences… in person. It’s a big part of what actually facilitates that closeness from the beginning,” said Kirmayer.
Ultimately, having a lasting face-to-face friendship — especially during your formative years — can do wonders for your confidence and sense of self-worth.
“When we have these close face-to-face friendships where we’re able to show our true selves and be accepted for who we are, and then to have a friend choose to stay involved in our lives, that can be incredibly rewarding and reinforcing.”
Harrison has experienced this firsthand with friendships she’s made through Girl Guides. She’s been a member for 17 years.
“It’s been really helpful for me to be around other like-minded girls growing up. I never felt like I didn’t belong.”
There’s nothing wrong with online-only friendships
There’s nothing wrong with having online-only relationships. In fact, they can be a powerful tool for learning how to make friends.
“It can be a very effective way to meet new people, especially people that have similar niche interests,” said Kirmayer. “(They’re a good way to) explore different parts of ourselves and connect with people over shared interests and passions.”
In her experience, online friendships can help people who struggle with things like social anxiety to practice certain social skills.
“It’s much less threatening,” Kirmayer said. However, in an ideal situation, these online friendships eventually parlay into real-life friendships.
“Online friendships (shouldn’t) come at the expense of in-person connection,” she said.
This is because online communication is typically very surface-level and shallow.
“Often, online communication is a kind of cheap, efficient form of communication,” said Kirmayer.
“We don’t have the same expectations for what those conversations will entail or how meaningful or how deep they’ll be.”
As a result, the relationships don’t have as much of an impact on our confidence, self-worth or sense of social connection.
How to talk to your kids about being online
For parenting expert Ann Douglas, this data is an opportunity for parents with teenage girls to talk about making friends in the digital age.
“One key takeaway (for parents) is to know that your daughter isn’t necessarily thriving socially because she has a lot of great texting buddies,” Douglas said.
During those formative years, young people are learning “how to be in the presence of another person, how to know them, how to read their body language,” Douglas said. “Those things don’t happen in the same way online.”
That’s why parents need to be proactive about helping their children connect with others in the community.
The first step is “having conversations about the difference between the friends you know in real life and the friends that you’re meeting online,” but it’s also important to lead by example.
“Be the kind of family that reaches out to other people, not just staying holed up in your own little bubble,” Douglas said. “Do some volunteer work or get to know your neighbours, rake your leaves together. That can really help to build that feeling of connectedness and social trust.”
Argast hopes this new data will “remind parents and those who support girls that girls’ online lives matter very much — they’re not just wasting time online — but that developing in-person networks with diverse groups of girls is even more important for girls’ sense of well-being and belonging.”
“Ensuring that we create safe spaces for girls to meet and connect can contribute to building resilient and healthy communities.”
— With files from Arti Patel