A little less than a year ago, Elizabeth Gaba ’17 was scrolling through Instagram when she saw that one of her favorite Vine singers, Gillian,* commented on one of her friend’s pictures.
Excited, she texted her friend asking how he knew her.
After talking about Gillian, he gave her Gillian’s number, per Gaba’s request. Gaba and Gillian have been best friends ever since.
“The internet gives people opportunities to talk to people that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to,” Gaba said. “Being able to communicate with people is something we should absolutely take advantage of.”
Gaba and Gillian met in person this summer at A Capella Academy, which confirmed to Gaba that Gillian was not pretending to be someone else on the Internet.
Jillian Sanders ’17 has many friends that she’s met on the internet and five who she’s extremely close with.
She met two through Tumblr and the other three through Twitter.
Most of the time, Sanders reached out to these people because she saw they had similarities, like the same favorite music or celebrities.
They range in age from 16 to 20-years-old and range in location from Maine to New Zealand.
Along with being friends on Facebook and Snapchat and following each other on Instagram, Sanders said she texts and Facetimes them semi-consistently.
With the introduction of social networking, the rate of teenagers and young adults meeting people virtually and sharing information is on the rise.
Though most adults seem to see internet friendships as dangerous, opinion-based websites like the Huffington Post, New Republic and Buzzfeed have written articles on the benefits of meeting people on the Internet. Mary McLaurine of the Huffington Post wrote a column in 2015 about how the people she met on the internet are better than people she sees in real life.
Teen Vogue reported that 57 percent of teenagers have met someone online, but that only 20 percent have gone on to meet up with them in the real world.
“Just go with your gut,” Sanders said. “I’ve become friends with at least five people through social media, and all of them have been who they’ve said they are. You can just kind of tell if there’s something off about them by the way they talk, manage social media or present themselves.”
Counselor and humanities teacher Luba Bek said that kids have always wanted to meet and talk to people in different places. When she was a child, Bek had pen pals in different countries with whom she would correspond on a monthly basis.
“It’s exactly the same,” Bek said. “The only difference is that this is instantaneous. You have a chat; we had letters. But the principle of trying to connect with strangers to find out how they live is pretty old, and I think it’s inherent to human nature to be curious.”
Her pen pals were also organized by a program that worked with her school at the time. The program only signed up children with their parents’ permission.
Bek personally believes that parents should be able to access what their child does on the internet before they hit their late teens. She said parents can judge what is dangerous and what is harmless.
To Bek, conversations with people online are similar to conversations one might have on a plane.
Someone can share their entire life story, their deep fears and hopes and dreams, and then never have to face the person they confided in again.
“There’s an emotional safety in talking to someone who’s far away from your life because you know they’re not going to judge you,” Bek said. “They’re not involved in your life.”
Gaba believes that anyone hoping to make friends over the internet should try to have the person on at least two social networks to confirm that they are not a predator or a catfish, and she communicates with Gillian on both Snapchat and Instagram.
Sanders agrees, saying that knowing of more than one social media account is necessary in order to proceed with the friendship.
“Definitely try to talk to them on the phone or video chat with them before you consider meeting up with them,” Sanders said. “It’s also not a bad idea to bring someone else like another friend when meeting up with them for the first time.”
One student, who wishes to remain anonymous so she can avoid scrutiny from the adults in her life, she said, met a friend on Tinder, even though she is opposed to internet friendships.
She said that she only started talking to this person because they had mutual friends, and doesn’t think internet friends are a good idea unless you know the same people, or are introduced.
The American Psychological Association found that internet offenders pretend to be teenagers in only 5 percent of crimes studied by researchers, however.
They also said that homosexual teenage boys are at the highest risk of becoming victims of internet crimes, and that teenage boys were the victims in almost 25 percent of internet crimes.
In most cases, the conversations included comments about their homosexuality, or about questioning their sexuality.
Huffington Post writer Jaime Zucker wrote a blog post in 2015 about catching a catfish on Tinder and the lengths she had to go to to do so, involving hacking techniques.
Zucker was a criminal investigator, though, so to her, checking profiles came naturally. To most teenagers, it will not.
“In my case, I wasn’t concerned at all because I’d seen [Gillian] on social media, and knew that she was real,” Gaba said. “It can still be dangerous in a lot of cases. It’s just about being cautious and understanding the risk of talking to someone you don’t know.”
News sources have also reported on sexual assaults due to online dating meetups.
The Daily Mail reported in 2015 that a college student, who was assaulted after meeting up with someone she met online, blamed her naivete and trust in the online dating world as the cause of her assault.
“Both parents and kids need to be educated,” Bek said. “We aren’t doing enough to teach them. In this day and age, we need to do that.”
Not4Dating.com and Makefriendsonline.com are websites, formatted like Tinder, Match.com or any other online dating platform, dedicated to people who want to create lasting friendships with others online.
In fact, just a simple “making friends online” Google search will result in ten different websites just for people who want to connect on the internet.
Not4Dating.com does have a Frequently Asked Questions section but has no mention of what to do if you believe a profile is being used for catfishing or scamming.
All of Sanders’s experiences, however, have been positive. One time, she started talking to a girl on Tumblr about some celebrities they liked, and they realized they lived almost eight minutes away from each other.
They met in person in 2012, and Sanders got to watch her friend go off to college in Boston. She met another friend on Twitter and met up with him in the summer of 2015.
“I’ve never met someone so funny and whose personality matches mine as much as his does,” Sanders said. “I miss him so much. When we’re in our twenties, we’ve decided we’re going to take a trip to Thailand.”