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The Online Mom provides internet technology advice and information to help parents protect their kids, encourage responsible behavior and safely harness the power of technology in the new digital world. Social networking, photo sharing, video games, IM & texting, internet security, cyberbullying, educational resources, the latest on tech hardware, gadgets and software for kids 3-8, tweens and teens, and more.

Online Relationships: Time for a Reality Check!

By Stacey Ross:

Do you believe in "love at first click?"  I am certain that it happens all the time.

OK, I lied. Call me unromantic, but I actually don't think it happens all the time!

I believe that, by nature, online relationships (both work and friendship-based), regardless of how seamless and flowing they might feel, inherently come with limitations. They tend to show merely part of who a person really is or only a limited glimpse at of how someone wishes to appear, regardless of how deep the conversations might roll or how transparent one might seem!  And I contend that more people than not like to keep it that way, despite the exorbitant amount of time they invest online.

Regardless of my sentiments, many are convinced that they have forged deep bonds via the Internet – all with a little help from their mouse! While all sorts of relationships can stem from and grow online, this platform is just one part of the big picture when it comes to having trustworthy and meaningful relationships. However, we must never underestimate true, old-school face time!

A lesson I needed to learn

Working online on a daily basis, I feel "plugged in" to my online community, yet sometimes isolated from my real (offline) community, which is totally not how things used to be. Interestingly, the larger the online gathering, the lonelier it can be.

I found myself in a tangled web (on the Web!) that was a few years in the works, and it came to a head not too long ago. I learned that I have to reprioritize and invest time in phone calls and in-person meetings with those individuals whom I am building a significant work or social relationship with.

I was reminded how in-real-life (IRL) communication is how true roots are planted, and that our online communication platforms can be used to keep people at bay, while at the same time reeling them in; resulting in the most bizarre "dance" that I have quite possibly experienced.

So close and yet so far!

The interpersonal connection that is unique to text relationships and even social media correspondence can be more of a manifestation of the need to express one's own thoughts or have one's needs met (or words heard) than truly opening oneself up to the rawness of genuine friendship.

Online relationships can become convoluted with the lines blurred, one reason being that, in various communities and fields, many have the inherent need to "warm up quickly" to build clout and self-serving associations. And, yes, by happenstance, close ties evolve into seemingly genuine friendships or partnerships, but the true test is taking the relationship out of the safety net of public display and from behind clever acronyms and cryptic coding and getting real.

The paradox of some of these relationships is that our various online platforms facilitate us with enough bells and whistles and Emoticons to build tight ties, yet also insure that we are clearly maintaining a distance.

For some, this simply entails creating healthful boundaries (networking, work-related, etc.), yet for others (i.e. those seeking attention, love or IRL relationships), the online "friendships" might stem from a strong desire to have deeper connections with friends, colleagues, fans, family members, activists, etc. Many purposely go online to connect and share with one another, but the risk is that the outcome can range anywhere from good fortune to heartbreak.

An interesting nugget of a thought I continue to contemplate as I raise my school- age kids was sparked by one of the world's leading innovators in science and technology, Dr. Gary Small. He refers to "digital natives," young people who have grown up with access to new technology from a very early age, as having demonstrated that their brains are wired to use the technology effectively, but shares a growing concern that they have less experience when it comes to face-to-face human contact skills.

This reminds me of an online friend I had back when I was pregnant with my first child. I did not have many friends that were expecting at the same time, so when I found the opportunity to be paired with an online buddy whom, on paper, I seemed to have a lot in common with, I was thrilled to partake in an online pen pal relationship.

We were going through such profound and similar life-changing experiences that I felt a strong tie to her, especially during our second and third trimesters as expecting moms. She wrote well, was compassionate, and had so many tips and experiences to offer – recommendations, suggestions for books to read, stories to tell, etc. She also seemed to appreciate my insights and what I had to offer.

When it came out that she was coming to my town but did not express interest in getting together for coffee, I realized that she, like many, used e-mailing, texting, and blogging as an outlet and a sounding board for self-reflection, not necessarily as a platform for building a healthy friendship. The relationship was never intended to be anything more than what was on the screen. What you see is what you get.

Take it offline!

Virtual relationships do not entail much work, sacrifice, or devotion. What they do consume, however, is a noteworthy amount of energy! Researchers estimate that teenagers receive an average of 3,417 texts a month; one can only hope that positive things come from all of that finger work! Online Americans spent slightly more than one day a week online last year, increasing their average online time by 3 hours to 26!

A Facebook friend recently posted: "I have so many online friends who are engaging and seem to care, but I tend to wonder if I were to fall off Facebook would anyone miss me or even wonder what had happened to me? Would they even realize I was gone?"

I believe that, for many, their online worlds appear much more significant than they really are or should be! Sure it is fun to get "happy birthday love" on Facebook every year, but someone picking up the phone to call means so much more.

Our online personas and bios are so very far from the multi-faceted and dynamic nature of what makes us unique human beings, but on-going engagement developed in this mode has the tendency to turn our complex selves into robotic entities. We become acronym-quoting, approval-craving, attention-seeking avatars that pass the screen like an a-la-carte menu. As a college freshman told me: "It seems like we need to display ourselves and our activities just to be on the up-and-up and it can get old!"

The great divide

Sherry Turkle is a professor at MIT, a clinical psychologist and author, and one of the leading experts on the social and psychological effects of technology. In her book, Alone Together - Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Turkle explores how new technology is changing the way we communicate with one another. She argues that Internet use can isolate and destroy relationships just as effectively as it can bring us together.

Turkle also shared with NPR.org something quite compelling:

"Children are getting these phones earlier and earlier. These are years when children need to develop this capacity for solitude, this capacity to feel complete playing alone. If you don't have a capacity for solitude, you will always be lonely, and my concern is that the tethered child never really feels that sense that they are sort of OK unto themselves; and I talk to college students who've grown up with the habit of being in touch with their parents five, 10, 15 times a day."

Many people meet their good friends or love interests on the Internet, and many I know ended them there too. One man I know was actually fired via a text message. This is where the old adage Easy come, easy go can really rear its ugly virtual head!

Proceed with caution!

I contend that we preserve our well-being more effectively when we ramp up on educating ourselves and our kids about online safety and precautions and simultaneously nurture interpersonal relationships offline as well as online.

The reality is that we as parents and as online enthusiasts have greatly changed the way we communicate, and our new methods can ultimately enhance and broaden our worlds. We just need to approach this constantly evolving world of online communication with one arm extended and the other guarding our own personal well-being.

We also need to instill the same approach in future generations!

Stacey Ross is an online consultant, social media enthusiast, freelancer and owner of SanDiegoBargainMama.com. A former teacher and middle school counselor, she is now a mom of two who researches and freelances about lifestyle topics involving family and well-being.

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