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What making friends online is like for teenagers today

In a post-MySpace world, how is intimacy and forming friendship different for Gen Z than it was for previous generations?

For many millennials, our first memories of making friends online are tinged with guilt and fear. Those who were children in the late 90s and early 00s will have grown up instilled with the idea that the strangers we met in chat rooms and on forums were as dangerous as men in white vans; that we couldn’t trust that anyone was who they said they were, that even though we were authentic, nobody else online was. Studies claimed that one in five teenagers had been sexually solicited online, leading to widespread moral panic that seems now seems as archaic as Y2K.

But for those of us with niche interests like emo or Dungeons & Dragons, the internet provided a pool of people who were into the same weird stuff we were. Those ostracised at school could, behind a veil of anonymity, talk about what they loved with an uncool fanaticism that only got them bullied IRL. 

I was 11 in 2004, and the fear-mongering that began at home continued at school with lessons on cyber-safety that warned us to never share personal details with anyone we met online. I didn’t listen, naturally, and within a year I had met a bunch of emos from my city on Myspace by the clock tower in the town centre. We’re still friends today. Meeting online upped the danger, yes – but it took away the awkwardness of finding out if someone liked what you did, and it increased the intimacy of our friendships. Topics like mental health and sexuality that were never broached with my classmates came up in the first week.

Now, the internet isn’t just something we occupy in our spare time, it’s a constant presence. The lines are blurred between our IRL and URL lives, and even those friendships that aren’t made online are maintained through story replies and DMs. We have hundreds of ways to verify someone’s identity – with most of us on multiple platforms recording our daily interactions with hi-tech cameras daily, it’s tough to pretend you’re anyone other than who you say you are.

When asked how I met someone, be it a friend or even my boyfriend, the answer largely is: Twitter. That’s the same for many millennials, the first generation of Online Friends, but what about for Gen Z, who’ve never known a world without Wi-Fi? Is making online friends as natural as it now is for us, or were they raised with the same Stranger Danger rules drilled home: if you must have online friends, do everything you can to verify they aren’t a predator. I spoke to some Gen Z kids between 13 and 21 to find out how making online friends has changed.


When we were teenagers, online friends were posited as extremely dangerous, essentially anonymous strangers. Jen, aged 17, tells me that she started making online friends around the age of 11 or 12 “when playing games on [her] computer”. She says that she’s never met any of them, and “was always slightly worried something bad would happen”. Mia, 13, agrees. She tells me that she was told making friends online was “dangerous” around the age of six or seven. People have similar ways of protecting themselves as we did. Jen tells me that she was told by parents and teachers to never give personal details to anyone online or to show them what she looks like, while Mia “was told to set my profile as private and to use a username that’s not my actual name” as well as to only accept people that she knows in real life. Tolmeia, aged 19, tells me that they had several cyber-safety lessons at school wherein they were shown a melodramatic video about a girl being groomed online – so far, so similar to our experience. 


Tolmeia tells me that she’s been making friends online since she was around 13. She believes that the cyber-safety lessons they had at school were outdated and didn’t take into account the fact that “it’s a lot easier to trust that somebody is who they say they are just because it’s rare to find people who aren’t online in some way or another.” Jen agrees – “I consider my online friends my friends in general, and talk about them as I would like any other of my friends” she says, despite being initially scared. While Tora, aged 21, had been warned about the internet, she says that her parents even encouraged her to make friends online “as a way of getting me more adjusted and comfortable when moving countries” which she says “made it seem like it was a very obvious thing to do.”


For millennials, the earliest platforms for making online friends were chatrooms and forums, then LiveJournal and Myspace in the mid-00s, and later Tumblr. These friendships were maintained on mainstream chat platforms like AIM and MSN. Other websites came and went, like Neopets and Habbo Hotel, but what they all had in common was that they were occupied by nerds. I met my first online friend, a girl named Amy, on a forum for Avril Lavigne fans. We communicated over MSN, Myspace, and eventually letters, until we both just got too busy to keep in touch at all.

Naturally, things are different for Gen Z – all of the people I spoke to said that they primarily made friends online by DMing people with similar interests, like fashion or TV shows, on Instagram, or by commenting on each other’s blogs. Tora had a slightly different experience – saying that her first online friend was on a Swedish site called GoSupermodel, a collection of forums about fashion and culture for girls aged 10-15. The only real crossover between my experience and Gen Z’s was Tumblr – when I was 17, in 2010, I made friends in the LGBT and fan communities on there, and many of the kids I spoke to have a similar experience.


While many of us did meet people from the internet IRL in the early 00s, it was heavily discouraged and overblown by parents, teachers, and even our friends. When I met my first online friend IRL, I lied and told everyone we’d met at a party. That’s less the case now – while Gen Z are encouraged to take precautions, meeting their URL friends in person is far less taboo. Tolmeia, aged 19, tells me that she met a friend from Tumblr in real life this year after bonding over fashion. “We clicked in an instant and have spent the past three years talking every single day. We’re so lucky to have Skype and Facebook and all of these tools to break down barriers before you even get the chance to hug the other person in-real-life. It felt like we’d spent all that time together before because we kind of had!” she says. “I’ve shared more with her than I have with anybody in my life but it doesn’t mean less just because it’s been through a screen”.

“We clicked in an instant and have spent the past three years talking every single day. We’re so lucky to have Skype and Facebook and all of these tools to break down barriers” – Tolmeia, 19

“I moved around a lot growing up, and actually ended up meeting kids and classmates from my schools on the internet before I started. It was kind of like a ‘buddy system’, but I spent a few months chatting to them before actually meeting them” says Tora. Charlotte, now 21, says that despite being scared when she was younger, she started to meet girls on Indie Twitter and via Instagram stories who she now regularly goes on nights out with: “a couple of months ago a girl messaged me and was like ‘we should move our internet friendship to IRL’ and we went on a night out” she says.


Despite the normalisation of making friends online, and despite how much less of a taboo it is for Gen Z than it was for millennials, it’s actually not the primary way anyone makes friends. “It’s still not the main way, but it’s definitely a way to feel like you’re properly friends with people you’ve only met fleetingly” says Charlotte. Mia says that she personally would rather have met someone in real life, something that other people I interviewed echoed. 


When I was a teenager, I told my online friends things that I had never shared with people I knew in real life. It felt safer, hiding behind my small shred of anonymity. Plus, with those that kept personal blogs, I already knew if we were going through similar struggles. The people I spoke to agree. “The year I met my best friend online through Tumblr was one of the hardest years of my life. I went through the trauma of experiencing major earthquakes and she was the first person I messaged in the aftermath, not only to let her know I was safe but also to vent to,” Tolmeia says.

“Messaging is a great way of breaking down those barriers which make it hard to speak about certain things in person,” she adds. “I think it helps in forming a sense of trust.” Tora agrees. “I think that I’ve made close friends online in the sense that when there’s no one there physically, I feel like I can chat to people I’ve become friends with online,” she says. “I guess for me a lot of ‘online friends’ I have right now I met in real life ten years ago and we’ve kept in touch through the internet, and with those friends I could share pretty much anything.”

“I usually ask for their name and age and if it changes I don’t really trust them, and I’ll look out for suspicious behaviour. I’ll always make sure to video chat them if it gets too suspicious” Mia, 13


While everyone’s understanding of cyber-safety has somewhat relaxed as we’ve gotten to know the internet better, it’s still scary meeting up with strangers. Luckily, Gen Z are smarter than I was, and have precautions in place to keep themselves from getting catfished or hurt. “I usually ask for their name and age and if it changes I don’t really trust them, and I’ll look out for suspicious behaviour. I’ll always make sure to video chat them if it gets too suspicious” says Mia. Tora tells me that she takes precautions too – primarily, by not really meeting up with men from the internet “since they’re all terrifying”. “But meeting a girl is the best thing ever – especially when you end up becoming amazing friends afterwards,” she tells me.

While making friends online has become entirely normalised in the last 15 years, similar precautions appear to be in place as when we were children: do everything you can to verify their identity, video chat, meet in a safe place, etc. This is partly because, as making friends online has become more common, so have tangible horror stories. The fear mongering around making friends in the 00s was based on hearsay and guesswork – it was easy to dismiss our parents’ fears as they seemed irrational, but now, Gen Z know that the danger can be very real.