Online Friendships are Healthy and Loving

When I was a child, I was forbidden from speaking to strangers for fear that something terrible would happen. Friends were to be made in playgrounds and classrooms and, I hear, at extra-curricular classes or hobby groups, but they didn't exist in my private world. I didn't like who I went to school with. I liked Jacqueline Wilson and Roald Dahl, so I spent a lot of time in my room, alone, reading about worlds wider than my own and feeling as though I'd never experience anything other than the suburb of Manchester in which I lived. The only evidence I had that other people with different lives actually existed was, as follows; television (mainly the news), holidays (usually Devon), the autobiographies my parents read (Mum: celebrities, Dad: musicians), and, eventually, the new shiny thing that sat pride of place in our living room - a computer that let you browse the Internet (but only when nobody was using the house phone.) An addiction was born. Information and conversation were at my fingertips, and I was genuinely upset when AskJeeves 'retired'.

As an adult woman, I still love the Internet. I spend a lot of time on social media. I've spoken previously about following inspiring women as an act of self care - resulting in a feed that is wholesome and inspiring, and also a safe space. Social media has allowed me to share parts of my life that I feel comfortable sharing, and witness the same at the hands of others, meaning I often wind up feeling like I know somebody despite never meeting them in real life. Under the right circumstances, I have known this to grow into a valuable and loving friendship.

Speaking to strangers today has a whole new meaning - though after a day or two of following them online, these people don't feel like strangers. As time goes on, we learn about each other. Perhaps we read the same book, agree on an divisive issue, or fancy the same actor. Maybe we have a similar style, or like the same band. Maybe more than one of those things. Maybe all of those things. Sometimes we even live in the same place, or a short train journey away. Sometimes, we remain mutually appreciative almost-strangers. But sometimes, we become friends. We send supportive direct messages. We exchange likes, comments, retweets. We share advice. We offer a virtual shoulder to cry on. Online friendships can sometimes be looked down upon as frivolous, in comparison to the 'womb-til-tomb' type of friendships so often shared and revered, but I think online friendships are incredible. I sent a message last week that read "On an unrelated note - we should get coffee soon!" and a couple of days later we were sat in a cafe, eating toast, exchanging stories and laughing. To an onlooker, it would have been impossible to guess that we had never sat opposite one another before. We looked like old friends, and in a way that's only possible thanks to the Internet, we kind of are.

I'm making a case for online friendships because they have proven to be a beam of light in some of the darkest times I've had. When I was younger, and lonely, being able to mindlessly chat on websites like Habbo Hotel and Runescape was invaluable. When I got older, and the all-encompassing minefield of fraught mental health knocked on my door, I quickly became a 'bad' real-life friend by a lot of standards. I cancelled plans. I stopped checking in. I couldn't answer the phone. I didn't often feel capable of leaving the house. Online friendships were my sanctuary - a place to exchange ideas when I felt like it, check out when needs be, and share sadnesses with people who wanted to listen. I could help too, here and there, and that was gratifying in its own right. To have left the healthy life I'd known, and had entered the void of depression, feeling like I was being even slightly helpful to another person was incredibly fulfilling. All from my bedroom, and thanks to my iPhone. 

Since being healthier and happier, I learned that online friendships harbour a new possibility: they needn't be restricted to the online world. Online friendships can exist outside the realm of Instagram and Twitter. I think that they should, if and when the time is right. It felt like second nature to send a message bringing the friendship I had made to the real world. Four of my most treasured friendships were born from an online connection. Meeting somebody that you have admired and bonded with through screens is some parts surreal, and most parts rewarding; some of your walls are likely to have already come down, and there's much you already know, but so much more left to learn. Send the message. Get that coffee.