Digital Friendships: The Role of Technology in Our Kids' Social Lives

child sitting on the couch texting on the phone

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Since emerging from the isolation of the early pandemic, many adults have talked about a feeling of social anxiety or awkwardness and feeling like they don’t know how to socialize anymore.

It's only natural that children’s social skills have been significantly affected, too, at a pivotal time in their development. No one is sure how the isolation will affect anyone long-term, but Verywell Mind talked to child development experts to see how it may have disrupted children’s development, depending on their ages. 

Plus, with many of the world's social interactions moving online, there are some pros and some cons to creating and maintaining friendships online. This article discusses how technology impacts childhood friendships.

How Do Children Make Friends?

First, it helps to understand how children typically develop socially to understand how these changes in their friendships may impact them. 

According to psychologist Robert Selman, there are five stages of friendship development: 

  1. Momentary Physical Interaction: Between the ages of three and six, a child’s understanding of friendship is limited to someone they are often in close proximity with, such as neighbors or someone on their school bus. 
  2. One-Way Assistance: Between the ages of five and nine years old, children understand that a friend isn’t just someone whom you are currently playing with. However, their comprehension of friendship is fairly unidirectional. They can appreciate their friend doing something nice for them, but they cannot always see what they contribute to a friendship.
  3. Two-Way/By the Rules: Between the ages of seven and 12, children begin to wrap their heads around a friend’s perspective as well as their own—but not at the same time. This means that they have a hard time seeing their friendship as a whole unit. Also, they see friendships as very binary and quid pro quo. If a child at this stage does something nice for a friend, they expect the friend to do something good for them at the next chance they can. If not, the friendship may fall apart.
  4. Intimate/Mutually Shared Relationships: Between the ages of eight and 15, friendships start becoming deeper, and friends may share things with each other they don’t share with others. The friendships become less quid pro quo, and they will do kind things for each other without expecting something in return.
  5. Mature Friendship: Generally children enter the mature friendship stage after about age 12. At this stage, they really value emotional closeness with friends, and can tolerate and even appreciate differences between their friends. They’re also beginning to become less jealous. 

Though friendship before the age of three is less studied, there are some patterns that have been observed:

  • At six months: Babies get excited about seeing other babies, and they may try to smile or make noises to capture the other baby’s attention, but they seem to think of other babies as toys.
  • Between 12 and 18 months: Toddlers begin to show preference or interest in their peers. They may play rudimentary games such as peek-a-boo, which shows that they have some ability to understand another’s perspective.
  • Two and three-year-olds: At this age, they may be able to do small gestures to comfort their friends such as offering a crying friend a toy. 

The Pandemic's Effect on Children's Friendships

With many schools going virtual in March 2020, children lost their main avenue of socializing—school. Children’s friendships, especially the younger they are, are typically less stable than adults’ friendships. This means these relationships are more susceptible to interruption, especially when the only context they’re interacting in is school—and school is online.

Teens were able to stay more connected, to a degree, thanks to social media, but elementary-school-aged children had to rely on their parents to facilitate that communication for them—at a particularly vulnerable age/stage for making friends, says Nikki Lacherza-Drew, PsyD

Nikki Lacherza-Drew, PsyD

Now that things are returning a bit more to ‘normal,’ kids still aren’t having playdates because it’s their new normal to not get together. Many kids she sees are showing a massive uptick in social anxiety. A lot of them are saying I haven’t had to do this in two years, what do I do if it turns out to be awkward?

— Nikki Lacherza-Drew, PsyD

Many of these children just aren’t used to socializing in person. “I expect we will have to help all children with developing social skills and give higher risk children—those with anxiety, developmental challenges, etc—access to programs and interventions to help them develop the social skills they need to be happy and thrive,” says Dr. Helen Egger, child psychiatrist and co-founder of children’s mental health app Little Otter

Helen Egger, MD

“Mental health challenges impair a child’s ability to interact with peers and adults,” she says. “It is critical that they receive help for their mental health challenges so that they have the best chance for healthy social and emotional development.” 

— Helen Egger, MD

In one study that surveyed children between ages five and 14 in April and May 2020, the kids reported that virtual interactions don’t really allow them to “be” with friends or play. Many children also said that they missed being able to perceive warmth from their friends as well as physical touch like hugging or cuddling.

Role of Technology in Children’s Friendships 

There’s no doubt that the role and availability of technology played a major role in social interactions during the pandemic.

“I see technology like I see vegetables and candy,” says Lacherza-Drew. “There’s good and bad to both.”

Drawbacks of Technology

As we are all too well aware, there are plenty of significant drawbacks to the role of technology in people's lives but certainly in children whose brains are still developing. 

“The younger the child is when using technology, the less developed their social skills will be. It is a lot harder to read facial expression[s] and body language-critical social skills virtually,” says Dr. Egger.

Cyberbullying Risk

Also, Dr. Egger points to cyberbullying as an issue. “Having technology access like a personal phone both increases a child’s risk of being bullied and the risk of being a bully themselves.” 

One studyof 12,000 children between the ages of 10 and 13 revealed that experiencing cyberbullying in adolescence was associated with a greater risk of suicidality than in-person bullying.

“This is a very important finding that makes it imperative that parents, teachers, pediatricians, and mental health providers learn if kids are experiencing cyberbullying," says Dr. Egger.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Benefits of Technology

Despite risks, technology isn't all bad. For instance, a study measured friendships in six domains: 

  1. Validation and caring
  2. Conflict and betrayal
  3. Companionship and recreation
  4. Help and guidance
  5. Intimate exchange
  6. Conflict resolution

These qualities are widely used in research on offline friendship, and so a meta-analysis (study of studies) on digital friendships measured kids’ online friendships based on these six areas. They discovered that all of these areas are present in online friendships.

One of benefits is in the area of self-disclosure. Many adolescents reported that they were more likely to share emotionally intimate information via text message because it gives them time to compose messages thoughtfully and regulate their emotions. 

Additionally, there were clear benefits for those with social anxiety, with those using instant messaging or chat rooms reporting higher friendship quality than those who didn’t use those platforms. 

Long-Term Effects of Digital Friendship

While it is too early to know the long-term effects of these social interruptions, both early research and previous research on isolation can give an idea of potential effects.

Children Might Have a Difficult Time Understanding Non-Verbal Cues

Early research shows that the physical distancing related to COVID-19 affects social cognition. This includes a weaker ability to recognize emotions on others’ faces—especially a more difficult time recognizing positive emotions. 

Children May Lose Friendships

And even children themselves are aware and worried about the long-term effects on their friendships.

One child told researchers “If you never see your friends, well…the friendship can regress and you might not be friends with these people anymore.”

In Lacherza-Drew’s experience, one of the hardest things on kids was when their friends’ families’ attitudes around COVID-19 safety started to diverge. “They would see those friends on Instagram doing things they couldn’t do—and those friendships ultimately died out, because they weren’t seeing them at all.” 

“I worry,” says Lacherza-Drew, “that if we’re not on top of teaching them social skills, and going at it more intensely, we’re going to have a cohort of kids with social anxiety through the roof and relationships not forming the way they usually did."

However, on a positive note, she thinks that some portion of virtual friendship going forward will be a part of normal reality—and help expose them to diverse peers across the country or world that they might not know otherwise. 

What to Do

But things are not hopeless. Since children’s brains are young and malleable, it’s possible to correct and counteract some of this. “Children are resilient,” says Dr. Egger. “But that resiliency is dependent upon getting the help they need to bounce back.”

One of the best ways, says Lacherza-Drew, is to “really limit screen time and get back to face-to-face interaction. Get the kids away from the screen and go outside and throw a ball and start facilitating social skills.” 

Dr. Egger suggests helping children build in-person relationships with children and adults at school, playgrounds, after-school activities, sports, and other social activities. 

A Word From Verywell

Your child may struggle with the adjustment, but give them grace as they re-adjust to a world that is either completely new to them (for those who were born during or just before the pandemic) or unlike the one we lived in before the pandemic. 

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Selman RL. The Growth of Interpersonal Understanding: Developmental and Clinical Analyses. New York: Academic Press; 1980. 

  2. AL; LZKKDW. Friends or foes: Infants use shared evaluations to infer others' social relationships. Journal of experimental psychology. General. doi: 10.1037/a0034481

  3. Larivière-Bastien D, Aubuchon O, Blondin A, et al. Children's perspectives on friendships and socialization during the COVID-19 pandemic: A qualitative approach [published online ahead of print, 2022 Mar 14]Child Care Health Dev. 2022;10.1111/cch.12998. doi:10.1111/cch.12998

  4. Arnon S, Brunstein Klomek A, Visoki E, et al. Association of Cyberbullying Experiences and perpetration with suicidality in early adolescenceJAMA Network Open. 2022;5(6). doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.18746 

  5. Parker JG, Asher SR. Friendship and friendship quality in middle childhood: Links with peer group acceptance and feelings of loneliness and social dissatisfaction. Developmental Psychology. 1993;29(4):611-621. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.29.4.611

  6. Yau JC, Reich SM. Are the qualities of adolescents’ offline friendships present in digital interactions? Adolescent Research Review. 2017;3(3):339-355. doi:10.1007/s40894-017-0059-y 

  7. Bland AR, Roiser JP, Mehta MA, Sahakian BJ, Robbins TW, Elliott R. COVID-19 induced social isolation; implications for understanding social cognition in mental health. Psychol Med. doi:10.1017/S0033291720004006

By Theodora Blanchfield, AMFT
Theodora Blanchfield is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist and mental health writer.