August 6, 2015

Teens, Technology and Friendships


In the past generation, parents, policymakers, advocates and journalists have paid particular attention to the possible pathologies that can arise from youths’ use of digital tools – from fears about online predators and bullying, to young adults’ purported narcissism, to the allure and distractions of screen-based life. Less attention has been focused on how teens have woven their technology use into the fundamentals of their social lives, particularly where friendships start and relationships deepen.

Friendships are a critical element in the lives of teens. The teen years are marked by the increasing importance of peers and friends in teens’ social and emotional lives. Friends supplant parents and other adults as the central relationships for teens. And, as with many elements of our modern world, the creation, maintenance and conflicts of these critical peer relationships have moved, at least partially, onto interactive digital platforms like texting, online video gaming and social media. Previous qualitative research1 has shown the importance of digital media in teens’ friendships in helping to create “always-on intimate communities.”2

This report fills in the details and quantifies the ways teens use digital tools in the context of friendships. It follows the arc of friendships and explores the role of social media, video games and mobile phones at each phase. It starts with the way teens use digital technology to meet and make new friends, addressing how and where teens meet other teens, and what modes of communication teens use to stay in touch with newfound friends.

The report then looks at how teens use digital media to maintain their friendships. Much of the focus here is on an individual teen’s closest friend. The report investigates the ways in which teens communicate with their closest friend and where they hang out digitally and in person.

After that, the report does a deep dive into the role of specific digital platforms. It looks at teens and their practices with video gaming as they relate to friendships. It also shows the import and meaning of social media as a site of teens’ interactions with friends.

The study ends by looking at conflict among friends and what happens when friendships end – particularly, the role digital media plays as friendships break apart.

The report details the results of a national survey of teens ages 13 to 17. Throughout the report, the word “teens” means those in that age bracket, unless otherwise specified. This report also covers the findings from 12 in-person and four online focus groups of teenagers that were conducted in the spring and fall of 2014.

  1. boyd, d et al. (2010) “Friendship” in Ito, Mizuko, et al., “Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media,” MIT Press, pages 79-116
  2. Ibid, page 114