The growing trend of internet friendships

Laurel Kraus, Staff Reporter

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When 16-year-old Alyssa Ledesma made a Facebook post about her passion for wrestling in July 2016, she didn’t predict that 20-year-old David Cass, who lived states away, would comment on it and begin a close friendship she cherishes today.

While Ledesma and Cass have yet to breathe the same air, there are big hopes for the future. Ledesma is planning a surprise trip to see Cass this summer.

Internet friends are a controversial yet quickly growing trend in recent years.

While “catfishing,” the creation of a false identity online with the purpose of misleading others for one’s own benefit, is always a concern, it seems to have little effect on the decision to form bonds over the internet.

As a trend that exists predominantly with millennials, people from across the world are meeting each other through social media sites, video games and chat rooms.

Tanner Holt and Kenneth Nunnally, who live in Texas and Oklahoma, respectively, met nearly seven years ago while playing “Call of Duty: Black Ops II”. They now describe their relationship as like having a brother a few hundred miles away.

According to a 2015 Pew Research study, 57 percent of teens have met a new friend online.

Reasoning behind the growth in this emerging type of friendship is vast and, for the most part, debatable.

When these friendships first begin, it is possible that anonymity is often the most attractive factor.

After discovering on Instagram that they were both self-teaching sign language, Elise Johnson of Alabama and Erin Lubey of New Jersey declared themselves instant friends.

“Sometimes around the friends that live close to you, you have to be careful about what you say,” Johnson said. “[With] internet friends, you can fully be yourself and trust that, even if you stop being friends with that internet friend, they don’t have anybody to tell worthwhile.”

Beyond that, internet friends have an outsider’s perspective of each other’s lives, allowing for non-biased and often-appreciated opinions.

After meeting over Tumblr in early 2015, Rachael Connolly from England and Luma Serandi from Greece see the importance of this in their relationship.

“I know that I can go to her and explain any situation, and she’ll always be honest with me, so she won’t be someone who only sees my side of the story,” Connolly said. “She’ll be very blunt. If I’m being irrational, then she’ll tell me, and so I really feel like I can trust her.”

There is also speculation that, in some cases, motives in online friendships can be unintentionally selfish.

“When you eliminate face-to-face communication and you just rely on texts going back and forth, it gives the person communicating the power to sort of fill in all of the perceptual gaps of understanding,” said Christine Stover, adjunct instructor of Oakland University’s Department of Communication and Journalism. “So , ‘I love you’ or ‘You’re my best friend,’ those words, just the print words, as a recipient of them, you’re allowed to add whatever sense of emotion or meaning to it that’s not necessarily been attached by the person who wrote the words.”

However, internet friendships can have largely positive impacts on lives, as well.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated three million adolescents in the U.S. suffered from major depression in 2015. Internet friends can be an outlet for thoughts and feelings that adolescents may not feel comfortable sharing with those around them.

During the four years that Ashley Densel of Maryland and Julie Polawski of Brazil have been internet friends, mental illness has been a part of their bond.

“When my depression got pretty bad, she was always there to make sure I was OK,” Densel said.

Even beyond mental health, it can be invaluable to find a community of people who understand what one may be going through.

“If you’ve got an issue that maybe you’re not comfortable talking to your family about or your friends about, that maybe only other people in the same boat as you would understand, there’s a great support opportunity in online communities and online friendships that can exist,” Stover said.

As far as the effects of internet friendships on social dynamics, Sambo Srauy, an assistant professor of communication at OU, reported that there are none. This is due to the overall similarity between internet friendships and traditional friendships.

“The most rational, most reasonable explanation of why we view online friendship and offline friendships as different is because we don’t have the cultural language or the cultural context yet to view them as the same,” Srauy said.