Beyond the gaming console: Making friends outside the gaming life

By: Sarah LeBoeuf

More parents worry about their kids’ ability to make friends in a pandemic world, but their gaming friendships just might be helping them through it.

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Today’s kids and teenagers have never lived in a world without the internet. They’re hyper-connected to real-life and virtual friends via social media, online games, numerous chat apps, email and more. Yet, “making friends is both harder and easier than it was when we were young,” says Amanda Farough, a writer, editor and mom of four who writes often about the intersection of gaming and parenting.

“When we were kids, we had our home phone and if we were fortunate enough to have a computer in our homes, we would eventually use messaging apps like ICQ, MSN Messenger and AOL IM,” says Farough. “Regardless, we were limited by our neighborhoods almost entirely. If we went to school together, we could maybe have a chance at being friends.”

Compare that to 2021, when “kids can talk whenever they want to through their various devices, but they’re never truly away from one another.” But too much time online is a major concern for parents today, and with gaming becoming a big coping mechanism for kids during the pandemic, parents worry kids will lose the people skills needed to make friends in person. According to a new survey of 2,000 parents with kids ages 5 to 14, 70% worry that their kids have forgotten how to interact with other children due to a year of remote learning and lockdowns. What’s more, two in three parents fear that their children will be more awkward around others, and 62% worry that their child won’t be able to pick up where they left off, socially speaking, once in-person school resumes.

Sound familiar? In reality, kids today often have extended online social circles via their favorite video games, but if you didn’t grow up a gamer, it can be intimidating to talk to your kids about making friends in real time. We asked Farough for her advice on how to help your kids keep those friend connections going, on and offline.

Online vs. IRL: What’s the difference?

For many kids, guided activities like school provides them with the chance to be close to others in the same age range. From there, real-life connections grow. They hang out with kids from other schools in Little League or at summer camp, and then meet friends of those friends.

“Making friends through friends is often how kids broaden their social circles,” Farough says.

In some ways, making friends through video games is similar. It’s not unusual for young people to make connections through their favorite multiplayer games, whether that’s on a smartphone, console or PC. Through games, kids can find like-minded friends that they may not be able to find at school or at after-school activities.

“There’s an abundance of very close connections during gaming that’s difficult to have during guided activities, including school. You get to spend time one-on-one [or in small groups] playing games and solving puzzles collaboratively,” Farough says. “There’s time for deeper conversations about life—and the game—that wouldn’t be possible while a coach or instructor is leading an activity.”

Farough stresses that all of these connections, whether in person or virtual, are meaningful, but parents should be aware that “connecting while playing games together can be socially enriching in unexpected ways.”

The ongoing 2020 effect on gaming and friendships

The pandemic kept many kids away from classrooms, sports, clubs and in-person events. Stuck inside, mobile use skyrocketed and video games provided a much-needed escape. Farough reported that almost everyone in her household—kids and parents—played more games during the pandemic.

“They didn’t make new friends in games, per se, but they definitely strengthened relationships with their existing friends,” Farough said of her children. “Games kept our kids and their friends together when they couldn’t see each other face to face.”

With a new school year about to begin, children may struggle to shift from online to IRL relationships.

“My two eldest children have both struggled quite a bit more with their social interactions and behavior since they’ve been learning remotely since March 2020,” Farough said. Her oldest, who’s in high school, now becomes overwhelmed in large crowds and had to go back to remote learning after two months back in school. “She isn’t super interested in meeting anyone new.”

It’s important to keep in mind that while some kids might have an easier time making friends in games or online, others prefer in-person interactions. Farough finds that this often “depends on the age” of children. In many cases, younger ones have more boundaries in place when it comes to online relationships.

“I’ve often told my kids that online and offline are entirely the same in that you should take both of these kinds of friendships equally as seriously.”

Advice for parents

Whether offline or online, Farough says the most important advice she can give kids about making friends is to lead with kindness. There are other ways to apply online social techniques to IRL interactions as well.

  1. Listen twice as much as you speak. Online, it’s easier not to talk over each other. There’s a message and a response. Treat offline conversations similarly: Take pauses, make sure you’re listening and comprehending instead of just responding, and don’t push anyone past their comfort level. “When we’re making new friends, we ensure that there is safety for all parties involved, which means that everyone respects everyone’s boundaries,” Farough says.

  2. Remind kids that it’s actually normal to struggle with making friends. Online, kids can self-select and choose the players that match and challenge their abilities. That isn’t always true in groups offline, where they’re in a group of kids with all kinds of different abilities. “Making friends at school and during activities is very hard when your kid isn’t the same as their peers, whether that’s having completely different interests or just not being ‘the norm.’ As parents, we want our kids to be healthy, happy and whole, which means that we want them to have friends that help them achieve those emotional goals.”

  3. Give advice that is appropriate for them, not for you at that age. “The best thing to do, as parents, is to reinforce the good things in our kids’ personalities. Listen; don’t try to fix the problem. Never condescend to them—they know when you’re being insincere or you’re just brushing them off.”

  4. Try the value alignment conversation. Farough and her children talk at length about the kind of person that they are and the kind of person that they want to grow into, which helps them to identify what they value in others. “The value alignment conversation really opened my kid up to understand that potential friends are everywhere and that not everyone thinks poorly of them. You can’t please everyone, so just find one or two people that already like you for you so you can build from there.” In other words, help them to become the kind of person they’d want to be friends with.

  5. Set boundaries. Farough says the “biggest boundary” she put in place with her younger children is to “never to give away personal identifying information to anyone that they don’t know in person, which includes real names.” That might be harder for modern kids to understand, given the prevalence of personal information displayed on social media and the tendency to overshare.

For today’s kids, being extremely online might make digital interactions easier than in-person ones. One type of friendship isn’t more important than the other, but like with most things in life, balance is important. By showing your kids the similarities between making friends online and IRL, you’ll help them develop healthy social skills that will benefit them in almost any situation.

Making friends isn’t easy, but helping your kid stay safe online can be with a little help from Smart Family.

About the author:

Sarah is a gamer and writer for a variety of publications, including Polygon, Variety, NBC News, Nerdist, Ars Technica, GameDaily and more.


Verizon's Parenting in a Digital World Portal publishes articles from a diverse set of authors with expertise across the digital safety spectrum. Contributors to the Portal are compensated by Verizon for their work.

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