At least according to Tricia Wang, social-media researcher, visiting scholar at New York University, and fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet Studies. She tells Quartz that “Adults conceive of strangers as dangerous, but they’re a very important component how young people use online.”
Her research on this topic included spending large periods of time with around 300 teenagers (mostly from the US and China) and surveying some other thousand. She claims that for teenagers, meeting people online is a way to explore identity, as they feel safer sharing their emotions with people who are complete strangers and who don’t tend to judge as easily.
This comes as no surprise, since teenagers have always had an attraction for spaces where they couldn’t be watched. Online there are plenty of networks where teenagers can have an account and be completely anonymous: Tumblr, Snapchat, Twitter, and so on.
Wang first observed this tendency in teenagers in China, where they joined unknown social networks to escape the repression they experienced in their real-life social circles. She believes that teenagers have their own ways of determining whether or not they should trust a stranger on the Internet.
This type of socializing allows teenagers to adopt multiple attitudes or sexualities, which in turn makes them aware that nothing lasts forever online and they can discard old accounts whenever they want.
Finally, Wang does not deny that socializing on the Internet comes with risks, but she says that teenagers are far more able to adjust to them than many adults realize.