Have We Watered Down “Friends”?

A friend from high school stopped by a couple weeks ago. We haven’t seen each other in about 20 years, but our reunion hug was long and deep. A true friend. Which made me wonder about the friends my kids are developing?

I really thought about it when my mom returned from the parent-teacher association meeting recently about online safety.

“How was it?” I asked later that day.

“Scary,” she replied. Huh, I thought, that’s the same response my neighbor had when I asked her.

And they are right. It is scary. We know that children are being exposed to photos and information that is not appropriate. We know that our children are revealing too much personal information about themselves. We know that the number of child predators online is beyond comprehension (about half a million predators online every day). We know that at least 20% of all kids experience cyberbullying. We know that about 70% of all kids will “accept” a friend invitation whether or not they know the person.

Then it hit me. Do children these days actually know what a friend is? In my generation, a friend was someone you spent time with, someone that you enjoyed, someone with whom you did activities or sat beside and watched the clouds roll by. A friend was a human being in your physical social context. You have talked to your friend. You have shaken hands or hugged your friend. In those days, you knew your friend’s number and you talked to them.

Today, my children have had “friends” since they were a few months old in day care. Every other child in their class was a “friend.” “Good morning, friends.” “Play nice with your friends.” “Let’s open up our books, friends.” As they entered elementary school, the concept of all peers as friends continued to persist.

My question is, have we watered down the concept of friends to the extent that children assume everyone in their peer group is a friend. Thus, it makes sense to them that they might have hundreds of “friends” in an online space because “friends” are not necessarily people you know, but defined by someone else.

I asked my ten-year-old how many friends he has. His reply was “I have tons of friends. A whole bunch.” To me, though, he essentially has only one friend that he texts and plays Minecraft with and visits his home. The others are classmates and school peers.

So I’ve begun defining for him as he enters the online world that the only “friends” he is to have online are those that he also has a “real life” connection to. People he can touch. People he has spoken to and spent time with. People he actually knows.

It’s a scary world out there (even for me with viruses, hackers, identity theft and more a constant threat). Part of keeping kids safe is helping them navigate their social, electronic and digital experiences (I’m even contemplating using an “online contract“). And part of that is helping them identify and cultivate true “friends.”

(And I used to think parenting was easy….)

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