By: Irene Lane and Jane Gould
The act of making and keeping friends is, developmentally speaking, no small feat. Making acquaintances can be relatively simple, but developing true friendships is a much more challenging endeavor. To be able to establish those deeper personal connections requires a number of skills and is, in fact, a milestone unto itself. The importance of having friends, the process of acquiring those relationships and the associated challenges are central to what post-Millennials go through every day.
To explore this, Disney Channel embarked on a study that spoke with kids and their “crews,” as well as experts on friendship. We surveyed 1,000 children ages six to 14 across the US, and gave a dozen kids a journal to record a week without their besties as part of a qualitative study.
The ability to make friends requires no fewer than four core skills: empathy, autonomy, observation and trial and error. Making friends also requires proximity—being physically near to peers. Maintaining friendships, meanwhile, requires in-person interaction—being in the same physical space as one another to share real-life experiences.
We assume that most of these elements naturally fall into place—and they do, for most kids. But for some, it’s a struggle. Those who feel neglected, who feel the need to be in control or who are just emotionally or cognitively out of sync with their peers can often miss out. When kids miss out, they run the risk of having difficulty forming friendships or close relationships in the future, or they have to play catch-up and learn those core skills later. And in a world where kids are highly scheduled, with their time spread thin, it can be hard to make connections.
But the changing face of the American family—from the rise of single-parent households to increasing financial difficulties and beyond—make these connections harder to make but more important than ever. Kids know that kindness is critical to being—and having—a good friend, and this post-Millennial generation is a group more likely to want to understand bullied than to vilify them.
Recipe for success
So what goes into making and keeping friends? Assuming the fundamentals are there, another layer of environmental and interpersonal variables comes into play—and can greatly affect how things go. Kids will learn friendship behavior from their parents, birth order tends to shift how kids see themselves in their own peer hierarchy, and even gender can influence how friendships are maintained.
But when all goes well, friendships are created and kids use an unspoken code of understanding about how to act like a friend, what is important to keeping the friendship, and what is off limits.
It’s near impossible for all these elements to line up and create a perfect storm of friendship each and every time kids meet someone new, which is why they often have different types of friends who play different roles to meet their different needs.
Kids have no fewer than 10 types of friendly relationships that are at least somewhat important in their lives. The types of friends kids have are, by and large, a result of how they met and continue to engage.
And though all friends are important, they’re not equally important. While 96% of kids say their besties are very or somewhat important to them, only 58% say the same for neighborhood peers. When push comes to shove, it is best friends who are trusted and valued most—often just as much as parents, in fact.
As for those online “friends” parents so often worry about—the ones mass-media forces us to think about because of the proliferation of devices and the amount of time kids spend on those devices? Well, they’re not as significant as we might have thought. Not only do 30% of kids say they have online “friends,” just 35% of them say they truly trust their digital buddies.
It’s the IRL relationships that matter most. They are the people that kids deeply trust, confide in, work out their problems with, and share immense joy and laughter with. And, according to kids, once you’ve entered that inner circle you are there to stay.
Digital connectivity is a double-edged sword when it comes to children’s friendships. Social media, in particular, can both crystallize and dilute what it means to be a friend. It can extend engagement among those who are connected, but also ostracize those who are not. It can overwhelm kids with its 24/7 nature, its proclivity toward shock value and its tolerance of negativity. But at the same time, it can comfort those who struggle to make connections in the analogue world.
Kids are also affected by how friendships are shown in content. In the past, entertainment has portrayed friendships as idyllic, and the few issues that did come up were usually resolved in the span of 22 minutes. Friends were made exclusively outside the home. Boys and girls often stayed in their own lanes. Parents, well, they were the foils.
In reality, kids often have very real struggles within their peer groups. From jealousy to loss, over-dependency to misplaced trust and judgement, these relationships, like all relationships, are imperfect. They are tested time and again and, in some cases, fleeting. Boys and girls are friends with one another, and as the data shows, most kids are part of multiple circles.
For all its messiness, kids long to see these same challenging dynamics among the friends they watch every week in their content. The payoff for more accurate portrayals is immense, as authentic content makes for better stories and stronger viewer connections.
One of the most important types of friendship is that forged with “family friends.” Parents and siblings are not only playmates that live with you, they’re comrades in arms who, by nature of relation, can usually be counted on more than anyone else. Siblings and cousins are often children’s first friends, and those relationships offer the best of family and friends.
“Family friend” also includes the relationships between kids whose parents are friends. What’s more, parents of friends become friends themselves—adults with whom kids can engage in a different way than their own parents or the kids they’re close with. A full 84% of kids feel these grown-up buddies are important, and even more (89%) see them as incredibly trusted companions.
When we show kids different types of content from even just a few years ago, it can feel very out of touch with how they are handling things and moving through their world today. The opportunity to showcase genuine kid friendships is boundless and will pay huge dividends, benefiting both our business and our audience.
Perhaps more than anything else, friendships provide kids with a safe space in an ever-scarier world. As adults struggle to explain the unthinkable, keep their kids out of harm’s way and navigate their families through difficult times, friends can help steer the ship. They feel what’s happening in ways adults simply can’t. They provide respite in the storm of uncertainty. They lift each other up, have each other’s backs and simply make life more fun.
Jane Gould is SVP of consumer insights and programming strategy at Disney Channels Worldwide. Irene Lane is VP of consumer insights at Disney Channels Worldwide.