How important to you is having friends? What do you think it takes to make — and keep — a real friend? Is it ever difficult? Is friendship worth the effort?
In the Opinion essay “This Friendship Has Been Digitized,” Stephen T. Asma writes about an exchange with his 15-year-old son who had been playing Xbox with Scuzzball, a “friend” the son has never met outside of the online world:
My son’s indifference about playing with a person or a bot is actually very typical of gamers these days. They refer to one another as “friends,” but to me their bond looks very tenuous. I don’t recognize any sense in which Scuzzball and my son are real friends. And that concerns me. I wonder whether the pre-internet, face-to-face experience of friendship that I knew growing up will be lost to our post-internet children. And I’m not alone.
The Op-Ed continues:
Classmates and workmates can become friends, as can fellow members of sports teams and musical groups, spouses, religious or military colleagues, and so on. These examples suggest that friendship needs three criteria for full realization: shared experience, loyalty and shared intentionality, or mental connection.
What about in the digital sphere? Our online “friends” — whether it’s Scuzzball or the Facebook friend you’ve never met — satisfy the intentionality criterion, because we communicate extensively with language and report to each other long-term goals, disappointments, beliefs and other facets of mental life.
We can share experiences with a person online, but the experiences seem thin when compared with face-to-face experiences. Online adventures (social networking, gaming) can certainly strengthen friendship bonds that were forged in more embodied interactions, but can they create those bonds?
Teenagers playing “Call of Duty” with online teams, for example, are having collective emotional experiences, as in the case when my son’s squad must work to capture the enemy’s munitions. And these shared adventures strongly trigger the dopamine pleasure system, so it seems like there should be bonding. However, the online “friends” may be little more than dopamine-dosing tools and easily replaced without much dissonance. Indeed, one doesn’t even know who Scuzball is, or where he lives, or if he’s a he, or if he is a person or a bot.
The kind of presence required for deep friendship does not seem cultivated in many online interactions. Presence in friendship requires “being with” and “doing for” (sacrifice). The forms of “being with” and “doing for” on social networking sites (or even in interactive gaming) seem trivial because the stakes are very low.
More important, the “shared space” of digital life is disembodied space. We cannot really touch one another, smell one another, detect facial expressions or moods, and so on. Real bonding is more biological than psychological and requires physical contact. The emotional entanglement of real friendship produces oxytocin and endorphins in the brains and bodies of friends — cementing them together in ways that are more profound than other relationships.
Students, read the entire essay, then tell us:
— Can online “friends” be true friends? Is there anyone you’ve never met in real life that you consider your friend? If so, do you make distinctions between this person and the friends who are physically present in your life? Why or why not?
— Mr. Asma seems concerned that his son isn’t experiencing the same kinds of connections with peers that he had when he was a teenager. Do you think these concerns are valid? Or is this a mere generational difference? Do your parents and other older people you know say similar things about friendship that Mr. Asma is saying?
— The essay argues that fully realized friendships need “shared experience, loyalty and shared intentionality, or mental connection.” What do each of these mean to you? To what degree do you agree that these criteria are essential to real friendships?
— What is your advice for the kinds of relationships people your age should try to cultivate?
Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.