Pen pals go vir­tual

CityPress - - Voices - Dion Chang

Many chil­dren go through a phase of hav­ing in­vis­i­ble or imag­i­nary friends. 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. But 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 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 cy­ber­friend­ships, par­tic­u­larly on photo-shar­ing plat­forms like In­sta­gram, with peo­ple they have never met in per­son. They’re not strictly speak­ing imag­i­nary friends, but a new cat­e­gory of vir­tual friend­ships, which 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 cy­ber­friend­ships.

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 be­lieves that online re­la­tion­ships are just as mean­ing­ful as per­son-to-per­son re­la­tion­ships and one in four said that they felt close to peo­ple online 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 pho­to­shar­ing 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 hy­per­vi­sual 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, a chef and 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.

I fol­low most peo­ple 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 takes 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 coun­ter­ar­gu­ment 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.

I re­cently 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 in per­son, but rather let the friend­ship de­velop in cy­berspace.

An odd choice you might think, but in a predig­i­tal 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. Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. Visit flux­trends.com. Join him on Metro FM

to­mor­row at 6.30am when he un­packs trends on the First Av­enue show

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