Although more research is required, adolescence may present a second window of opportunity for massive brain development (Fuhrmann, Knoll & Blakemore) . The choices one makes at this stage very may well ricochet down their history, and not taking advantage of this time may inhibit much individual potential. While we know that online social media sites are used effectively to facilitate existing friendships, there is the danger of relying on it to protect oneself from the inevitable challenges and difficulties involved in that world (Bell, Bishop & Pizybylski, 2015). Internet friendships can then provide a refuge from having to face these challenges, and can become a permanent crutch or negative influence on one’s social development (Casale et al., 2014). Further studies have explicated on this trend, so that we know that those with disturbances (perfectionism, mental illness, ect) are likely to overuse or even become addicted to online social media and the friendships they have there, which in turn causes greater mental health issues, and more psychological disturbance (Sampasa-Kanyinga & Lewis, 2015).
What the research suggests often happens is that there is a reciprical relationship between forming relationships online and preferring forming relationships online (Smahel & Blinka, 2012). If you prefer to form friendships online, then you will do so – and if you do so, then you will prefer to form friendships online. The problem is, again, that this often leads to excess – if you rely on the internet to get the majority of your social needs met, then it easily leads to addiction because internet only friendships do not provide the tangible support that is often most needed from friendships, particularly in stressful times (such as when one is psychologically disturbed – which again both precipitates and is caused by internet overuse and addiction) (Best, Taylor & Manktelow, 2015). This is particularly problematic for those high in social anxiety who have a high need for social assurance (Lee-Won, Herzog, & Park, 2015). Internet friendships and social media then become a search for validation (and the use of the internet to present a highly controlled version of themselves, and assert themselves without fear of backlash) (Casale et al., 2014a and b), which leads to overuse of it.
So it appears that this can all integrate into a sort of downward spiral of addiction and disturbance, which it is difficult to impossible to tell which began first (and indeed it may differ by the person). So my answer is a qualitative yes – yes online friendships can do significant harm to adolescents if there is an absence of a significant offline component, and particularly if the adolescent is already distrurbed and/or has a strong preference for online over offline interaction.
The good news is that the research suggests that a strong family and social support system can help alleviate the perfectionism and disturbance that drives the motivation for taking refuge online. Such support can help the adolescent to persevere through the challenges and slings of fortune that the rocky social life of middle and secondary school can throw at them, and perhaps even thrive (Casale et al., 2014).
Bell, V., Bishop, D. V., & Przybylski, A. K. (2015). The debate over digital technology and young people. BMJ, 351(10)
Best, P., Taylor, B., & Manktelow, R. (2015). I’ve 500 friends, but who are my mates? Investigating the influence of online friend networks on adolescent wellbeing. Journal of Public Mental Health, 14(3), 135-148.
Casale, S., Fioravanti, G., Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (2014). From socially prescribed perfectionism to problematic use of internet communicative services: The mediating roles of perceived social support and the fear of negative evaluation. Addictive behaviors, 39(12), 1816-1822.
Casale, S., & Fioravanti, G. (2015a). Satisfying needs through Social Networking Sites: A pathway towards problematic Internet use for socially anxious people?.Addictive Behaviors Reports, 1, 34-39.
Casale, S., Fioravanti, G., Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (2015b). Self-presentation styles and Problematic use of Internet communicative services: The role of the concerns over behavioral displays of imperfection. Personality and Individual Differences, 76, 187-192.
Fuhrmann, D., Knoll, L. J., & Blakemore, S. J. (2015). Adolescence as a sensitive period of brain development. Trends in cognitive sciences, 19(10), 558-566.
Lee-Won, R. J., Herzog, L., & Park, S. G. (2015). Hooked on Facebook: The Role of Social Anxiety and Need for Social Assurance in Problematic Use of Facebook. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 18(10), 567-574.
Sampasa-Kanyinga, H., & Lewis, R. F. (2015). Frequent use of social networking sites is associated with poor psychological functioning among children and adolescents. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 18(7), 380-385.
Smahel, D., Brown, B. B., & Blinka, L. (2012). Associations between online friendship and Internet addiction among adolescents and emerging adults. Developmental psychology, 48(2), 381.