- Tweens and teens across the globe are searching for their Internet Best Friends (theoretical friend soul-mates) online.
- The trend has snowballed during the pandemic as kids try to fill the void of real-life interactions. But they also aspire to meet their new Internet friends in real life.
- Some experts warn that the trend of children talking to and meeting strangers could be dangerous, but others have said the practice can be safe with the right precautions.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
A best friend is wonderful, but a bff who you meet online, AKA an Internet Best Friend (IBF), is the end goal for many tweens and teens these days.
Turning to TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram, tweens and teens who have been trapped at home are looking for fast friendships with other young users who aren’t already paired with an IBF. Deprived of IRL friends, they’re finding new besties online, despite safety concerns.
Internet Best Friends are trending
The hashtag #IBF has 670 million views on TikTok. The trending Instagram hashtag #Internetbestfriends has over 320,000 posts, and dedicated accounts on the platform with thousands of followers collect videos of IBFs meeting for the first time.
One recent post reveals a common type of IBF personal ad: “I’m 13, and I’m looking for some new IBFs. I’m from Arizona, I’m looking for anyone 12-16. I love to talk a lot.” On Instagram, there are entire accounts devoted to posting these listings.
The trend is so popular that an app called Reach has secured over $5 million in funding based on the idea. It’s supposed to allow young people to connect to anyone looking for an IBF between the ages of 13 and 55.
But most teens and tweens appear to prefer sticking with the tried-and-true method of posting their ad on TikTok or Instagram.
Alexa, 12, met her Internet Best Friend, Bean, on Instagram after seeing her post that read, “I’m taking applications for an IBF, has to be 10-13-years-old, has Snapchat and has at least 100 followers.”
Soon after, they exchanged phone numbers and became instant best friends. Bean is also from Massachusetts and they’re the same age. Their favorite topic of conversation: the famous TikToker Charli D’Amelio. “We talked for weeks, became best friends and it’s almost been 6 months already,” 12-year-old Alexa said. “We’re planning on meeting.”
One of Alexa’s favorite things about her Internet Best Friend is that she’s almost always available online.
“I feel like she’s so much more up for talking than my friends in real life,” Alexa said. “She’s always available.”
They primarily communicate now via Snapchat, and talk about everything from TikTok to gymnastics to friendships.
Despite obvious safety concerns of meeting strangers on the internet, some parents are coming around to the idea, too. “It’s a bit strange at first, but as she described it, it normalized it,” said Mike, Alexa’s father.
He understands the benefits: his daughter is able to socialize during the pandemic while avoiding the cliques of middle school. But he still worries.
“My obvious and immediate concern is predators masquerading as kids,” Mike said. So before Alexa really communicates with someone online, he confirms that she’s able to FaceTime with them so he knows the person on the other end is really who she claims to be online.
“Other concerns are the possibility of disengagement from existing, in real-life friendships,” he said. “Screen addiction is also a concern.”
Many IBFs meet IRL
Internet Best Friends typically don’t remain on the internet. They usually plan to meet. And these meetings are nothing if not dramatic and over-the-top, reminiscent of viral reunions between soldiers and their families.
That’s because the IBF pairs put a lot of time and effort into planning the perfect first meeting.
Outfits are often coordinated, and many choose to “twin” with the best friend they haven’t actually met. Then it’s time to take out the phones.
IBFs meeting for the first-time often tape the moment and immediately put it on TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram. A search on YouTube for Internet Best Friends reveals thousands of first meetings, mostly of girls clutching each other and crying, falling to the ground in an exaggerated hug, thrilled that they finally met their besties in real life.
Alexa hasn’t met her IBF yet.
“I asked her where she lives,” said Mike, Alexa’s father, who approves of her online friends, even though the concept is slightly confusing to him. Turns out, Alexa made two Internet Best Friends. One is in Massachusetts, but Alexa doesn’t know which town. The other is in New York, but she doesn’t know anything beyond the name of the state.
Some child advocates warn that the trend could be dangerous
Meeting a stranger on the Internet and then meeting them in person has been warned against since the early days of the Internet, with dangers ranging from kidnapping to rape and even murder.
Even with precautions like meeting on FaceTime first, Gail Dines, president of Culture Reframed, a non-profit that aims to shield children from porn on the internet and sexualized media, said the practice is still risky.
“Studies show that predators are using teen platforms to groom children,” Dines said. “The main sites where predators are grooming kids are TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram.”
These studies found that sextortion — a crime defined by the FBI as threatening to distribute private material if a victim doesn’t provide sexual images, money, or sexual favors — is a growing trend online with thousands of victims in over 200 public cases, according to Brookings and LawFare. The Justice Department describes sextortion as “by far the most significantly growing threat to children.”
Since kids of all ages are spending about 500 percent more time online, according to a new ParentsTogether survey, thanks to the pandemic, online dangers are more prominent than ever before, said Patricia Vercillo, vice president of Smith Training Centre, which examines online scams and dangers.
Vercillo suggested that families keep it old school with board games, family time, arts and crafts.
At the very least, try to convince your teen/tween to err on the side of safety before meeting their IBF in real life, said Alexis Moore, a cyberstalking and cybercrime expert, and author of “A Parent’s Guide to Cyberstalking and Cyberbullying.” This means spending ample time chatting via Facetime before arranging to see each other in real life, bringing a parent with you when meeting, and only gathering in a public space. “Teens and tweens are incredible people, but you are not invincible,” she said.
Some say the practice could be safe as long as parents are involved
Not all experts agree on the risks, however. Some say that as long as parents are involved, meeting a best friend online may be no more dangerous than meeting one at school.
“The risks don’t go up because it is online — as long as you do your due diligence,” said Lea Lis, a double board-certified adult and child psychiatrist and author of “No Shame: Real Talk with your Kids about Sex, Self-Confidence and Healthy Relationships.” Many of the children in Lis’ practice — especially those with social skills deficits — meet their friends online. She even has an Asperger’s patient who met his boyfriend online. “They have been online dating for 9 months, and have never met,” Lis said. “It allows anxious people that don’t do well with initial face-to-face social interaction to foster a bond with someone.”
If the Internet Best Friends want to meet, Lis suggests that the parents meet first and that the kids go to a public place.
For now, the IBF trend is a positive one, she said. “During COVID, it is even better because face-to-face opportunities are much harder,” Lis said. “I used to frown upon that when they’d only communicate socially online, but now I feel thankful.”
“At some point, they’ll probably get together, but it hasn’t been discussed yet,” Mike said.
Internet star Gabbie Hanna returned to YouTube and announced that she’s releasing a song about Trisha Paytas
Teen influencer Danielle Cohn appeared to suggest she was really 14 in an Instagram live, reviving questions about her age
Disturbing videos show 3 transgender influencers being robbed and beaten on Hollywood Boulevard, sparking a police investigation