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For teens today, online ties as strong as family

Authors who studied thousands of teenagers using Habbo conclude that games, social-networking sites, and online hangouts are crucial socialization experiences.

A man hugs his Habbo in Helsinki.

For those of us who went to high school before the Internet had made its way into most households, back when evenings were more likely to be spent twisting telephone wire around our fingers than typing messages to our friends, having online relationships that are equally important to those that happen in person may sound implausible.

But for teens today, online communities--be they through games, social-networking sites, or other virtual groups--offer "crucial socialization and identification experiences," according to researchers who studied 4,299 people from Spain, Japan, and the U.K. who use the social-networking site Habbo.

Moreover, the study's teenagers reported feeling as much a part of their online communities as a part of their own families, and even more than a part of their offline hobby groups and neighbors.

The study, called "How do young people identify with online and offline peer groups? A comparison between United Kingdom, Spain, and Japan," appears online and in the Journal of Youth Studies. The researchers, who came from the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology HIIT and the University of Turku in Finland, wrote:

In the mature online societies of the U.K. and Japan, the online group provides a more socio-demographically inclusive source of identification than traditional leisure-time formations. As friends and family move online, affinity towards online groups is more likely to be a reflection of high sociability than a lack of it.

This paper investigated whether or not that is true (at least among teenage Habbo users); the question of why--and what it means--will likely be studied at greater length in the years to come.

Surely there are those who bemoan the idea that virtual relationships can ever be as strong as in-person ones. But even I, old enough to say that I didn't use e-mail until age 15 and a cell phone until 20, can identify with the idea that online communities, wherever they were first developed, are crucial.

Because my home office is currently in an empty house. And behind that house is an empty park. And a few blocks from that park is my empty climbing gym. And my friends and family are all working. And so we send one another little keyboard utterances throughout our days.

Days where being AFK is increasingly rare and, perhaps, increasingly lonely.