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Social media friendships critical for early adolescents, new Australian Institute of Family Studies research says


The 13-year-old said exchanging messages and funny memes online had helped her make new friendships and strengthen existing ones.

“As an only child, I’m mostly surrounded by adults at home, so it’s really nice to chat to people in my age group when I’m not at school,” she said.

‘Establishing positive peer relationships is critical for young people, and it’s important to factor technology and social media into that equation.’

Dr Mandy Truong, from the Australian Institute of Family Studies

Hue met fellow student Elsa Kuut in prep but said the pair became closer after chatting online and being in the same class.

“Elsa is so funny, she always sends me hilarious things, and we always make each other laugh,” Hue said. “There are definitely some negatives around social media, but for me, it’s mostly positive.”

University of Southern Queensland psychology lecturer Dr Riley Scott was eager to challenge the negative connotations surrounding social media and young people.

“In contemporary friendships, most young people nowadays spend more time interacting with their friends online versus offline,” Scott said. “There’s this consensus that social media is awful for us, however there are so many benefits for young people that we don’t talk about enough.

National Children’s Commissioner Anne Hollonds says social media is a factor in children’s friendships and its influence progresses in age.

National Children’s Commissioner Anne Hollonds says social media is a factor in children’s friendships and its influence progresses in age.Credit: Ben Symons

“Social media often provides a space for young people, particularly in that 8-14 age range to self-disclose and remain connected to their friends.”

Scott encouraged parents to be proactive with their children’s online usage and emphasised the importance of boundaries and safety talks.

“We want parents to have open conversations with their kids about how they stay in touch with their friends, but safety obviously always comes first,” she said.

She recommended parents “try social media apps before their child” or read the app’s parental guidelines.

National Children’s Commissioner Anne Hollonds was glad to see research into peer relationships for children in their middle years, as it was an age group that was often underrepresented.

“We often refer to children’s middle years as the ‘missing middle’ because we have an abundance of research around children’s early years and late adolescence, but not for the in-between period,” Hollonds said.

“Around 50 per cent of adult mental health problems emerge by the age of 14, so we really need to know more about the middle years age group to intervene early.”

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Hollonds acknowledged social media as a contributing factor for young people’s friendships, but said the influence “was progressive depending on age”.

“I don’t think eight-year-olds are engaging with their friends online, I think that occurs more when they get closer to high school years,” she said. “But as soon as children start entering the digital world, parents need to be there to navigate that journey with them.”

Truong encouraged families to “make space” for conversations around online friendships and to prioritise cyber safety.

“Rules and routines around catching up with friends online or in person will be different for each family, but ideally, it’s finding something that works for both parents and young people, and ultimately nurtures healthy friendships,” she said.

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