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For kids, friendships that click

October 20, 2005|Carol Mithers | Special to The Times

RACHEL Berkowitz made a new friend while attending an L.A.-area Elderhostel two years ago with her grandparents. The friend was someone 10-year-old Rachel very much wanted to stay in touch with; the fact that she lived in London with her family, and that the new friend lived in Mar Vista, was a nonissue.

The girls exchanged e-mail addresses and corresponded so often that when Rachel returned for a visit last year, the two were as comfortable as if they'd been in each other's company all along. Meanwhile, Rachel expressed interest in knowing other American girls, so her friend "introduced" her by e-mail to someone from her school. Soon, they too were corresponding -- friends without ever having met.

There was a time when advice on getting ahead introduced the novel notion of "networking" -- pursuing success by building on and taking advantage of one's personal connections. Today, the thought that anyone might need such instruction seems so 20th century. If a typical 11-year-old heard such advice presented as innovative strategy, he or she would collapse laughing.

Kids may not be climbing career ladders, but they are already adept at making social contacts, sharing them, manipulating and using them.

Two converging factors are responsible. Kids inhabit a larger and more varied everyday world than their parents did. Youngsters' social circles used to be small: family, maybe extended family, friends who lived nearby (who also were school friends), perhaps a few other acquaintances from Scouting, synagogue or church. Now, and especially here in L.A., kids have buddies from multiple neighborhoods in public or private schools that draw from across the city, involvement in religious school, after-school day-care programs, summer camps and sports.

Then there's the Internet. According to a June report from the National Center for Education Statistics, 80% of high school students, 70% of those in middle school, half of those in the elementary grades, and even 23% of kids in preschool go online.

By middle school, the majority are experienced with e-mail. They're slavish devotees of the Instant Message: A 2001 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that a typical IM session was 30 minutes and involved three or more friends talking simultaneously.

Now kids' ability to reach out to those they've just met, hold onto those they know, and bring disparate parts of their lives together with the touch of a key has changed the boundaries and definition of social life. Online, kids and teens still act their age, whether warm, silly and spontaneous or bratty and viciously cruel. But they do so in a much more public way.

"In the past, a kid might have wanted to introduce a friend from home to a friend from camp, but the barriers, like taking time to write a letter or risking a phone call to a stranger, were too high," says Michael Thompson, a Massachusetts psychologist specializing in children and families and coauthor of "Best Friends/Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children."

"The ability to 'meet' in cyberspace in a very low-risk way, and the simple ease of it has given kids a real confidence in their networking ability."

What may be most stunning to adults who still remember the pre-computer era is that these skills don't seem to be learned -- they just appear one day, instinctively, and fully formed. Kids share Internet lingo and information with each other, and years of playing computer games make them utterly comfortable at the keyboard.

The most basic kid networking, the friend-to-friend introduction, takes place constantly: Two girls, newly graduated from different elementary schools and about to start different middle schools, discover that each knows someone who'll be in the other's class, and immediately turn on the computer and start making introductions.

A seventh-grader hands the new kid in school a dozen IM screen names, and within a week, she's "talking" to all her new classmates, even the ones she's too timid to approach in person.

Last year, Maddie Cane, 12, of Santa Monica met a neighbor's friend and liked her "so I asked for her e-mail address and screen name. We started writing, just talking about random things."

Cane also uses the computer to keep in touch with a friend from preschool who now lives in Massachusetts, and has e-mail-introduced her neighbor -- "my best friend at home" -- to her best friend from school, who lives in Malibu. The two girls write, but have never been face-to-face.

Friendship spreads internationally. "I took my niece, age 16, with me on a working trip to Japan, and she met three kids," says Thompson. "She shot some photos of them, and to reinitiate a relationship, all she had to do was send the digital photos to them over the Internet. But she went further. She posted the photos on her website, wrote about the kids, and in that way introduced her acquaintances in Japan to her circle in Chicago."

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