The case of Manti Te’o, the college football player who fell victim to an online relationship hoax, still has many people wondering how he could feel so strongly about a woman he had never met in person.
But teens seem to have no problem understanding the phenomenon of developing an online relationship.
TODAY’s Matt Lauer hosted a discussion on the subject Thursday, saying that many parents wonder if their teenager could develop romantic feelings for someone they only knew online, and asked incredulously: “This doesn’t shock you that this guy actually thought he had a girlfriend and he’d never met her?”
“Unfortunately, no,” answered Johns Hopkins University student Lucie Fink.
“Teens in our generation, we are so used to the Internet,” she said. “We grew up in live chat rooms, talking to strangers, meeting these people that our parents would probably tell us to stay away from. But as teens, we’re so used to that, that I don’t think it’s at all strange.”
High school student and Huffington Post blogger Sam Koppelman felt the same way.
“What’s really different about our generation is we don’t group online relationships and interpersonal relationships any differently,” he told Lauer. “We think that they’re all the same thing kind of.”
Both students, though, quickly agreed that they would never consider someone they only knew through the Internet to be a boyfriend or girlfriend.
“Absolutely not,” Koppelman said. “Never,” Fink responded.
More than 25,000 people responded to a TODAY.com survey on the topic, with 76 percent saying they were not surprised that people can develop an emotional relationship with someone online and 24 percent answering that they were surprised.
Te’o, a star linebacker for Notre Dame, said he developed an emotional connection with a woman he met online and he often spoke of her as his girlfriend. Although they had never shared a kiss, he was later told she died of leukemia on the same day his grandmother died, and his grief became a compelling storyline during Notre Dame's season last fall. He later said that he had been the victim of a cruel joke and that hoaxers had invented the woman’s identity.
Koppelman said that although he and his peers talk to others online, they eventually meet in person, just like most adults do in the world of online dating.
“The one thing he missed and the one thing that differentiated him from my friends and me is that he forgot the interpersonal part,” he said of Te’o. “We usually combine the two and use online as a supplement to the rest of it but he just completely dismissed that.”
Fink added, “We wouldn’t do that.”
Child and adolescent psychologist Jennifer Hartstein wasn’t surprised by their responses, noting that today's teenagers have grown up in the Internet age.
“They don’t know life without texting, emailing, Facebooking,” she said. “This is what they know. This is how friendships and relationship are developed.
“You and I don’t know from that,” Hartstein told Lauer. “We know getting on the phone, having a face-to-face interaction.”
But while Lauer said he differentiates between “friending someone and becoming someone’s friend,” it can be different for young people. “We friend people that we don’t necessarily know,” Fink said.