Online Peer Relationships

Published on 22 May 2024


The Value of Healthy Online Peer Relationships for Young People

By Esther Donker (she/her), 3rd Year ACU, Bachelor of Youth Work student.   

In today’s day and age, it’s no surprise that young people have a plethora of different social relationships that all encompass their social realm. One component of young people’s interactions with their friends and family can be through in person, face to face communication. Another component that is increasingly growing is the online communication young people have with their peers and other social relationships.

So…what differs between online and offline relationships?

Essentially, online relationships are referring to two-way interactions with people that are happening in an online space - whether that be through private messaging, commenting, voice messaging etc. Online peer relationships are similar to offline relationships in that you are usually talking to a real person, and need to keep in mind using the same etiquette that you would in an offline interaction such as kindness, respect, empathy and good listening skills.

Some of the key differences when interacting in an online space, include:

  • A reduced capacity to read non-verbal cues such as their tone of voice and body language
  • Interactions may not happen in real time, allowing people more time to reflect on how they respond to one another
  • One can spend time on how they present themselves online such as speaking in a way that might not be how they usually speak, or visually presenting themselves in ways that might be misleading

As we know, young people are increasingly spending their formative years online, growing up alongside the internet. Research shows that for young people, especially those in the middle years (aged 8-14), their online friendships aren’t only an extension of their peer relationships at school, but that there’s an increase of young people making completely new friendships online, demonstrating an increased value being placed on online connections.

There’s an important opportunity here for those that interact with young people to understand the extent of how much value young people place in their online relationships, and how to best support them in having valuable, healthy, and positive online relationships.

Aside from just understanding what online relationships are, and how increasingly these kinds of relationships are growing, it’s important to be aware of and learn to respectfully discuss the risks and benefits of this kind of communication. 

Some of the risks that have been associated with online relationships and communication are: 

  • Young people are more vulnerable to cyber bullying
  • Communication with people who might not be who they say they are
  • Unwanted contact from someone a young person may not wish to interact with

Benefits that have been identified with online communication for young people, have included:

  • Increased self-esteem & social connections
  • Increased confidence in identity exploration
  • Opportunity to get to know someone before meeting in person
  • Reduced impact of social anxiety & general stress compared to in-person communication

Experts have suggested that when young people intentionally engage in online social relationships, with the purpose of maintaining those relationships, there are many positive benefits for them in terms of their mental health and wellbeing, just as there are with face-to-face relationships.

Online communication and social relationships may also be really beneficial in particular for young people with social vulnerabilities. For example, young people experiencing social anxiety, neurodiversity, or other disabilities might find that they can really feel a sense of belonging and connection when they interact online, as they are able to practice various social skills and interactions before moving into offline interactions as well. Studies also suggest that online interactions with unknown peers can help adolescents recover from the sting of social rejection. 

Research has shown that the online space may be a safe place for identity development in young people to occur. Because of the frequent use of online communication and the associated positive results in online peer relationships, there’s an enhancement of self-presentation and self-revelation skills, which are necessary for the development of personal identity and sexuality. 

Outlined below are ways we can support young people to establish and enhance healthy online social relationships:

  • Assist the young person in setting boundaries and expectations
  • Practicing good communication skills and etiquette (respect, kindness, empathy, trust) 
  • Exploring if the relationship is enriching the young person’s life? 
  • Is it a supportive, safe relationship where the young person feels valued, seen, heard, and understood? 
  • Checking in with the young people on how their online relationships are developing?

Ultimately, it is vital that the value young people place in their online peer relationships is acknowledged, understood, and supported.   

Please see the following references for more information:

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