Meeting strangers online is often portrayed as a serious risk of the internet. But Tricia Wang, a social-media researcher who’s worked as a visiting scholar at New York University and a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet Studies, argues that it’s also one of its greatest benefits. And that young teenagers are increasingly using social networks to seek out interesting strangers.
“Adults conceive of strangers as dangerous, but they’re a very important component how young people use online,” Wang tells Quartz.
Wang has conducted her research (pdf) by spending extended periods with around 300 teenagers, largely focusing on the US and China, and surveying a further thousand. She says teenagers often feel safer sharing their emotions with strangers, who are less quick to judge. And so meeting social networks of people who they don’t already know offline is a key way for teenagers to explore identity.
In some ways, this shouldn’t be surprising.Young people have always gravitated to spaces where they can’t be watched. Adults also have a tendency to seek out strangers. “It’s why adults like bars,” she says. “Or sometimes you sit next to that person on a plane who tells you their life story.”
Online, says Wang, these bars take the form of places like Tumblr, Snapchat, and Twitter: networks where teenagers can have multiple accounts, be anonymous, and experiment with their identity.
Wang says she first noticed the teenage tendency to seek out strangers in China, where many young people felt repressed by their offline social circles, and so joined unknown social networks to escape. And despite adult fears, Wang says teenagers are adept at using their own language to quickly determine whether or not they should trust a stranger—in China, whether someone is from the government and, in the US, whether they’re a troll or an adult.
Socializing with unfamiliar people online allows teenagers to adopt different attitudes or sexualities—for girls to take on a male persona if they’re feeling judged in online games, for example.
And this identity shifting means that, unlike adults, who tend to view what’s published online with a sense of permanence, teenagers are looking for ways to discard old accounts. “They don’t have the expectation that anything lasts forever online,” says Wang.
Teenagers still socialize with each other offline she says, but there seems to be less weight placed on the one group of people they happen to attend school with. “They’re not saying, ‘You have to be my everything, this clique is my everything,” she says. “For a lot of kids, that’s important. Because kids are fickle, friends are fickle.”
And so the internet allows teenagers to break out of their usual social circles. That certainly comes with risks, says Wang, but teenagers are far more adept at adjusting to these risks than many adults realize.