On my radar: Pen pals go virtual

Dion Chang
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 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 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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