Digital Friends:
Interpersonal Relationships
in the Virtual Age

Digital technologies bring new challenges to humanity. Navigating the virtual world has its positives and pitfalls. However, in the end, it depends on us, as individuals, whether we harness the good from modern technologies or become dependent on them. This was the consensus among the speakers at the public debate titled “Digital Friends: Interpersonal Relationships in the Virtual Age,” part of the Society 4.0 series. The debate was organized by the Aspen Institute CE in collaboration with ABRA Software, Neuron Fund, and the coworking space Opero, where the event took place on September 15.

Watch a short recap of the debate⬇

The debate was opened by Karel “Kovy” Kovář, a YouTuber and influencer, who pointed out that although online applications become our new digital friends, they can never replace real experiences and human contact in relationships. The current pandemic has made online communication a necessary requirement, which is not voluntary but reduces health risks. In his opening presentation, Kovy explained the functioning of social networks and the role of influencers. He also mentioned parasocial interaction, an illusory one-sided relationship of the audience with influencers, which is not a new phenomenon, but social networks have significantly intensified it. While human communication skills have evolved over thousands of years, the digital world requires adaptation to a new way of communication in record time. On average, a Czech spends 2.5 hours a day in the online world, while Generation Z spends up to 10 hours. The significant problem is the overall lack of understanding of the social media environment. While we intimately know other places where we spend time, such as home or the workplace, the same cannot be said about social networks. We don’t know who owns social networks or how information is shared. The social media environment is unreadable or hard to comprehend, which often leads us to behave differently than in real life. When we understand how they work, they won’t be dangerous, and we can use the positive aspects of online communication, such as organizing charitable campaigns, creative expression, or fostering civil society

Petra Průšová, the CEO for Central and Eastern Europe at Kantar Czech Republic, presented some results from the long-term study “Czechs Online,” which has been tracking Czechs’ internet behavior for 15 years. The research shows that young people aged 11-18 spend an average of 4-5 hours online daily. Half of them consider themselves online-dependent and consciously try to limit their internet time, but this is also challenging for their parents. Regarding the influence of digital technologies on interpersonal relationships, 70% of young people believe that social media helps in friendships, with 52% mentioning the advantage of instant communication with family and friends. Nearly half of them admit spending more time digitally with friends than in person, and 35% feel that these technologies are taking control of their lives. Despite this, 40% of respondents would like to use digital technologies even more in the future. Petra Průšová also presented research results on children’s sexual behavior online, which revealed that half of the young people have experience with sending intimate photos, with almost one-third of them being exposed to bullying as a result.

Markéta Šetinová, a sociologist, psychotherapist, and alumna of the Aspen Young Leaders Program, discussed the advantages and disadvantages of the impact of the digital world on romantic relationships. Among the positives, she mentioned online dating, which opens up new possibilities, especially for various minority groups. She also highlighted the easier maintenance of relationships due to accessible and inexpensive communication and the possibility of relationship diversity. On the negative side, she mentioned the overly easy access to casual sex without commitment and the threat of online communication, which can lead to mutual misunderstanding. Paradoxically, the abundance of possibilities offered by social media can also paralyze our ability to make decisions.

Psychologist and psychotherapist Alžběta Protivanská focused on the influence of digital technologies on human emotions, significantly affecting the decision-making process. Spending several hours every day scrolling through social media leads to comparing ourselves with others’ positive and idealized images. This creates a particular burden, anxiety, and insecurity in us. To overcome these, we need to take a break from social media, delve into ourselves, and try to understand what we truly lack in life and what causes our dissatisfaction.

Julia Szymańska from Avast Software and ambassador of the project “Be Safe Online” pointed out that just as we teach children how to safely cross the street in the real world, we need to teach them how to navigate safely in the virtual world. They spend a significant part of their lives online, connecting with friends and pursuing interests. Hence, we must help them navigate this world, and explain the dangers, rather than banning them from it. Surveys show that children aged 9-13 use at least three social networks, and up to 60% of them communicate with people they don’t know but feel like they do. While parents want to ensure their safety, they often don’t know how to do so. The “Be Safe Online” project aims to assist them in this aspect.

The evening was moderated by Tomáš Ervín Dombrovský, Head Analyst at LMC.

Photo: Ondřej Besperát

Watch the entire debate recording⬇

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