Online Friends vs. Real Life Friends: Similarities, Differences, & What Makes Them Great

Your online friends are real friends, but there are a few ways social media friendship is different than regular life.

Published July 12, 2023
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If you're like many of us, you've made some very significant online relationships over the years. Are online friends real friends, or are they something more superficial? It completely depends on the depth of the connection and how you define a friendship.

When Is Friendship Real Online or Offline?

Back in elementary school, you probably had a simple definition of friendship: someone who was fun to play with and nice to you. As you get older, the definition gets a little more complex.

Online or offline, a friendship involves choosing to meet each other's emotional needs. The American Psychological Association (APA) adds that friends often have common interests and a long-lasting relationship.

For this length and depth of connection, you need to share yourselves with each other and be open and honest. This can happen whether you're sitting face-to-face in your favorite coffee shop or dropping each other DMs on Instagram. Online friendships and real-life friendships have tons of things in common.

Real Friendships Focus on Similar Interests

It's easier to make friends with people who like the same things you do (just like it was back on the playground). Your common interest, whether it's photography, music, pets, kids, or anything else, gives you a starting point for conversations. This is true in person and online, but it can actually be easier to find people with common interests online.

Friendships Happen by Choosing to Be Together

Real friends choose to spend time together, whether that's time playing frisbee golf at the park or time chatting online. Friendship is voluntary. You're together because you want to be.

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What about a work friendship where you're together for a job (remote or in person)? In this case, the choice is sharing yourselves with each other and spending time together when you're not actively involved in a work task.

Online or Offline, Real Friendships Involve Vulnerability

Just as in any relationship, friendship involves emotional risk. You're choosing to be close to someone, which means you might get hurt. This openness and vulnerability is important to deepening your bond, whether that happens on your phone or at your favorite restaurant. In some ways, it may actually be easier to share deeper parts of yourself online, but it can also feel less risky emotionally because of the distance.

Friendship Involves Emotional Support

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When you're friends with someone, you can count on them to have your back when things get hard. If you're sad, stressed, going through a break-up, or dealing with a loss, the people you turn to are your friends. That's because they offer emotional support. It's just part of being good friends.

This is true of social media friends, as well as in-person friends. If you turn to one another in times of need, that's a sign of a real friendship.

Online Friends vs. Real Life Friends: How They Differ

Even though online friends can be real friends, there are some important differences between friendships where you interact through a screen and those that happen in your real life.

Online Friendships Require More Commonalities

In real life, you can share one interest (say mountain biking) and use that as a starting point for your relationship. After you do some biking, you can grab coffee and chat. The more you do that, the more shared experiences you have together to grow your friendship.

When you're friends online, it's harder to build new shared experiences together. Instead, you may need to start with several important commonalities.

It May Be Easier to Open Up With Online Friends

Because of the distance that comes with communicating through a screen, many people find it easy to open up emotionally online. That can lead to deep friendships because you're being vulnerable. At the same time, having the distance between you can also reduce some of the vulnerability and create a lack of intimacy.

Social Media Friends Can Conceal Flaws

In a real-world friendship, we can't always hide those annoying habits or dorky things we might do. On social media, on the other hand, friends can share the best details of their lives without revealing the things they'd rather not have seen. This is one of the potential disadvantages of online friends, and it means that you may not always have an accurate view of what your friends are like.

This can be too in real life as well, though, so it's best to simply use your instincts to determine how well you know your friends.

Are Online Friends Real Friends or Something Else?

Every friendship is different, but if your online friendships feel like real friendships, they probably are. Your friends on Instagram, Reddit, Twitter, or wherever you interact online can be just as significant as real life friends, and no matter how you know them, your emotional connection to your friends can be very real.

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Online Friends vs. Real Life Friends: Similarities, Differences, & What Makes Them Great