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Should parents let teens meet online friends?

When your teen wants to meet an online friend in person, should you allow it?
When your teen wants to meet an online friend in person, should you allow it?Manuel Alvarez / Today

From the time kids are toddler age, parents help in forging their friendships, whether it’s play dates at the park or in a toy-strewn living room.

So when your teen tells you they want to take an Internet friendship — with someone they’ve only met virtually through social media or video games — to the next level by having actual human contact, it raises the question: Should you facilitate the meeting or fret about it?

For Debra Spark, taking her then 13-year-old son to meet a 16-year-old online friend in a different state was something she never thought she would do. Spark, who wrote about the experience for Slate, says she initially didn’t like the idea of the Internet rendezvous, which her son requested when he discovered Spark was attending a literary festival in the state where his friend lived. Spark, a professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, described her reluctance and ultimate acquiescence:

My “creep” feelers went out. I flashed on stories of predators who entrap young adults through false IDs, of adults who imagine they are IMing with a pretty Russian girl, only to discover they are corresponding with a robot, eager less for love than a credit card number. Still it would be fun to have Aidan with me at the literary festival. When I agree to Aidan’s request, it’s with an awareness of how questionable my judgment sounds. “You’re taking your son to meet … wait … who?”

Teens and parents have different views of online friendships because they have different ideas of what socializing should look like, says danah boyd (who doesn't capitalize her name), author of “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.”

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Parents, who tend to be less comfortable with social media and other online technologies than teens, can’t help but fear that when online relationships evolve to in-person interactions, they are inherently dangerous or risky because they involve “strangers.”  

“As parents, we have a responsibility to protect our children. You magnify that with a whole set of anxiety-driven fears that are produced by the media,” says boyd. “We think of all the horrible things that could happen with strangers. It makes you want to lock them up in a padded room until they are 18.“

What parents don’t realize, boyd says, is that the vast majority of teens socialize online with people they already know. And they tend to meet new people through those people. Among their categories of friends — school friends, church friends, camp friends — "online friends" are just another group.

Most teen online relationships made through interest-driven practices (such as a video gaming or fashion blogging, for example) typically stay online, says boyd, and there is no reason or desire to make a connection further.

“But in a small percentage of those cases, you may find out you have more in common,” says boyd, who describes a hypothetical scenario where an online relationship may go deeper. “Not only do you both like to blog about fashion but then you discover you both like One Direction and you both play basketball, and, hey, my school team is playing your school team so let’s meet up in person.”

Spark’s son Aidan bonded with his online friend in a similar manner. Aidan met Amie through the computer game Minecraft. Their gaming turned into Skype conversations where they discovered other common interests. Spark would even say hello to Amie via Skype whenever she walked into Aidan’s room.

“I would hear him talking to her and he would laugh and laugh,” Spark told TODAY Moms. “She seemed fine, everything he told me about her seemed fine.”

When Amie and Aidan met in person at a hotel restaurant, both of their mothers were there. They later went for an outing chaperoned by Amie’s mother. And though she initially described facilitating the meeting, which happened over a year ago, as a “leap of faith,” Spark is glad the teens got to meet and notes they are still very much in touch and are hoping to see each other again this year.

Spark and the other mother handled the meeting in the right way, boyd says. “By and large, teens are not sneaking out to meet these people. Most interactions have a safety mechanism — either a parent is present or it happens in a public space,” she said, adding that adults — in the context of online dating — are often less safe about vetting strangers. “There are plenty of adults who will plan their first date at the other person’s house. How safe is that?” boyd asks.

The biggest mistake parents make, boyd says, is when they tell kids "No, you can’t meet the person," rather than telling them, "Getting to know strangers is a process."

So, if your teen says they want to meet their Minecraft friend in person, ask them a few questions first to see how much they actually know about the person, suggests boyd. Questions can range from, “What do you know about this person?” to “Does the school he says he attends actually exist?” to “Why do you want to meet them in person?”

Once you do the background work, it’s ideal if parents accompany their teen to meet the other person, says boyd. For teens, it’s a matter of finding out, “Are they who they say they are?” and there is always the chance they discover they don’t have that much in common after all.

Ultimately, boyd says, parents do kids a disservice by telling them all strangers are bad. You want your child to have healthy interactions with strangers, to be able to size them up, because their lives are going to be full of them.

“What you are teaching your child when they want to meet an online friend at 13 is also survival skills for when she is 18 and going off to college and having one of the most intimate stranger situations — meeting their roommate for the first time.”