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Third of All Teens Who Meet Strangers Online Are Meeting Them in Person, Too

By: WashingtonPost.com

The majority of teenagers don’t consider meeting strangers online a taboo, with six in 10 saying they have met at least one new friend on the Web. Teens are also texting and communicating through online games and social networks more frequently than they are spending time together in person. And of those who meet people online, one-third also followed up with an in-person meeting.

These findings are part of a new in-depth study from the Pew Research Center aimed at understanding how online interactions are shaping the social lives and identities of American teens. Broadly speaking, the research found that the line between the virtual and real worlds has almost completely blurred — and that kids say they have deep and meaningful relationships
with people online and in person.

“The digital world has taken its place alongside school and friends’ houses and extracurriculars as a place where teens go to make and strengthen friendships,” said Amanda Lenhart, author of the report “Teens, Technology & Friendships” and an associate director of research at Pew. “Like it or not, this is where our teens talk, plot, laugh and fight with some of the most important people in their lives.”

The current generation of digital natives, who hit adolescence just as the iPhone and Facebook took off in popularity, are charting new territory. And while the implications of online social activity among teens is not yet clear, some parents and child development experts warn that the intensity of online interactions is presenting new pressures for youth and their parents.

Researchers note how teens worry about missing out on conversations on social media, focus with increasing intensity on their online appearance, and react to the amplifying effect of social media. One cruel remark, teens who took the Pew survey said, can feel devastating in front of a big audiences and anxiety abounds over pressure to maintain gleaming reputations.

“Young people are very aware that people have highly curated images and that text fights can quickly go out of control and they are trying to sort it all out,” said Rosalind Wiseman, author of “Queen Bees and Wannabes” and speaker on youth issues. “But adults have to respect that these are deep relationships that play out online, and we can’t dismiss them.”

The abundance of technology has fueled the jump in and complexity of online interactions. Three-quarters of teens have a smartphone. A majority have a social media account and play some sort of online game.

According to the survey of 1,060 teens ages 13 to 17, texting remains the most popular form of digital communication. More than half of teens say they text friends every day, and three-quarters do at least every few days. Only 25 percent of teens say they are able to meet with friends in person outside of school hours every day.

Even with their closest friends, teens are spending as much time at each other’s homes as they are on social networks or gaming platforms. And those digital spaces are far more popular than hanging out with friends at coffee shops or the mall, the survey shows.

For boys, online gaming has become the center of social activity, with 84 percent of teen males playing video games compared to 59 percent of girls. Boys are more frequently making new friends online with six in 10 saying they’ve befriended a stranger via games or other apps. For 40 percent of these boys, the first piece of information they share online is their gaming handle.

For Chasion Adams, 17, gaming friends are as valuable as the friends he has made at his D.C. high school and in his neighborhood. When he gets home from school, he powers up his Playstation and for the next few hours he’ll play games such as “Call of Duty” against friends from around the world.

There is constant banter, with a lot of smack talk and joking.

“It’s like we have the game in common which is cool and then we talk about everything else like what kind of music we like and what’s going on with school,” he said.

Over a few years, he’s grown to know much about their family and personal lives. Chasion even met one friend in person after they discovered they were only a one-hour drive apart. When he is offline, Adams communicates with his gamer friends on social media apps such as Kik, Twitter and Instagram.

According to the Pew survey, 53 percent of teens say they feel more connected to people after they play games with them. And the vast majority of teens — particularly boys — say they feel relaxed and happy connecting with people while playing games.

Most teens also check in daily to social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Girls, more than boys, use these sites to stay connected with friends.

Yet the feelings toward social media are more ambivalent.

Nearly nine in 10 teens say they’ve witnessed people over-share information about themselves on social media. Nearly half of those surveyed say they’ve at least occasionally seen posts about events that they were invited to; and 85 percent said they think social media users present a carefully crafted image of themselves online that may not be authentic.

But the vast majority also say they social media allows them to stay better connected to friends’ feelings and events in their
lives.

It can be particularly hard for younger teens who feel pressure to create images of themselves on social media just as they are grappling with their budding identities.

When Chloe Becker first used Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram as a young teenager, she lacked confidence and was sometimes overwhelmed. One comment could invite a pile-on of replies – sometimes the remarks were harsh or hurtful. At times, total strangers reached out to her.

But she also discovered a benefit to the social network interactions — she could carefully consider her responses and choose what she shared. It was in some ways easier than face-to-face interaction.

“Authenticity is a tricky thing on social media because I had friends who were very friendly on Facebook but not in person, Becker said. “But when you are young what does it mean to be authentic? You are trying so many different things.”

Now, heading off to college in Austin and with much more confidence, the 18-year-old often meets new friends on Facebook. The aspiring computer engineer joined a page for hackathons and others interested in coding.

Like Becker, many say their friendship are completely entwined online and off.

On a recent sweltering August evening, Jessie Kinney and Megan Oliver took refuge at Tysons Corner.

The two, wearing matching neon yellow tank tops, have been friends since their fresman year at Yorktown High School in Arlington. Immediately after they met, they friended each other on Facebook so their interactions have always been half in person and half through texting and social media.

Even when Megan went to Greece for two weeks earlier in the summer, the two were in close daily contact.

But another big life change could change the dynamic.

They are heading off to different colleges. Jessie will go to West Virginia University. Megan will be attending High Point University in North Carolina.

Meeting up at Tysons a few days before they separate, they said they are confident they will stay in close contact.

“I’m sure we’ll be really busy,” Jessie said. “But I’ll see her on Facebook and Instagram.”

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