Many children go through a phase of having invisible, or imaginary, friends and it is an unnerving phase that many parents have to navigate. In the past, psychologists viewed imaginary friends as a child’s cry for help and a way to deal with loneliness, stress, or conflict. However, this line of thought has since been reviewed. Pretend play, in whatever form, is now seen as a critical part of brain development that not only develops abstract thought but also encourages imagination.
In today’s digital age, the concept of invisible friends takes an interesting turn, thanks to social media. More and more people are creating cyber friendships, particularly on photo sharing platforms like Instagram, with people they have never met face to face. They’re not strictly speaking imaginary friends, but a new category of virtual friendships that are only conducted on digital devices.
This new phenomenon is particularly prevalent in Generation Z, the 17 and under adolescents of today, but it also applies to the younger spectrum of Generation Y, so broadly speaking there’s a 15 to 25 year old age bracket forming cyber friendships with people they’ve never met.
Cassandra, a New York based research company, released a report that found an overwhelming 69% of this (American) age group believes in “digital intimacy”: that technology allows them feel closer to others. One in three surveyed, believe that online relationships are just as meaningful as person-to-person relationships, and one in four, said that they feel close to people online whom they have yet to meet face to face.
While mulling this over, it dawned on me that while I am decades away from the Generation Z demographic, I too have been slowly but steadily making virtual friendships in cyberspace.
Instagram is my social media weapon of choice. I’m wary of twitter because of the trolls and only really use it as a breaking news source. Due to its photo sharing functionality, Instagram is far more intimate and authentic: it is a very personal photo blog of one’s life, and some “igers” (what instagrammers call themselves) craft and curate the most elegant visuals to tell their stories – and clever storytelling is the lifeblood of our hyper visual era.
It’s strange how one stumbles upon other people’s feeds. It seems to happen organically when you plunge down the cyber rabbit hole, and I’ve started following the lives of some very interesting people. There’s David, a South African living in Tokyo, and Stephan a visual artist living in Melbourne. I also follow two separate feeds of a couple living in Sweden, one’s a chef and one’s a music teacher and I know that they spend their summer holidays at a lakeside cabin on Lake Langforsen. I know a lot about these people’s lives – yet we’ve never met and I doubt that we ever will.
Most people I just follow voyeuristically but every so often I’ll go beyond simply liking a picture they’ve posted and feel the need to leave a comment. Usually a “comment” is in the form of a quick emoticon [the new digital language that is fast evolving, but that’s another column entirely], and in most cases the person responds. Those quick, impulsive taps on your screen is how a virtual friendship begins. At the moment, these friendships are not deep – mere cyber acquaintances – but I can understand how a teenager, who spends much more time on social networks, can develop, what they consider, a meaningful connection via these portals. The longer I follow people, the more I become emotionally connected to their lives.
But going back to imaginary friends: Karen Majors, a London based educational psychologist says that children’s imaginary friends are needed “to overcome boredom and provide companionship or entertainment as well as to help express feelings and even for support during difficult times”. That sounds a lot like the days of our digital lives and social media, and it doesn’t just apply to children.
Two arguments always arise when discussing social media and our digital addiction. The recurring one is that we are losing physical human interaction: this usually from concerned parents or lightweight Luddites. The counter argument is that this is simply a new way of connecting and communicating. The physicality might be removed but that does not mean there is a lack of, or no scope for, emotional interaction.
Recently I met someone in passing at my local coffee shop. I instinctively gave her my card and subsequently discovered that we have that infamous six degrees of separation within our circle of friends. We’ve since been communicating via email and social media, and ironically have decided not to meet face to face but rather let the friendship develop in cyberspace. An odd choice you might think, but in a pre-digital era this sort of relationship went by another name – pen pals. A virtual friendship is no different: it’s just in a digital format and the potential for an emotional bond remains unchanged.
Dion Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. For more trends visit: www.fluxtrends.com Join him on MetroFM tomorrow morning at 06h30, when he unpacks these trends on the First Avenue show.