Cotton Candy Friends: 6 Ways Net-Gen Connections are Changing

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I am having a quarterlife crisis.

And it reminds me of cotton candy…how wonderful at a summer carnival, big pink fluffs of sugary goodness.  Until two hours later, then your teeth hurt a little and you are hungry for real food.

I am (maybe unfortunately) a Facebook Kid.  I was one of the first on Facebook, as Emory was in the second round of entries after the Ivy League Schools.  It was so exciting (still is often times) I could ‘friend’ the hot guy from poli sci, ‘poke’ the hot guy from the party this weekend and spy on my boyfriend’s exes pics.

Now that I am out of college, I am able to remember (and by remember I mean I get a reminder each morning) all of my friends’ birthdays, contact semi-friends in San Fran when I go for the weekend and keep up on the fact that my peeps in New York just went to an Aerosmith concert.

Great, so how does this serve me other than keeping up on pretty superficial (albeit sometimes interesting friendships)?  In the last week I have gotten calls from numerous college friends who are depressed because they have no ‘real friends.’

The teen (and 20 something) social interaction right now is like cotton candy, its fun and tasty for a little while, but after two hours you are hungry for real food, real connection.

My teen intern wrote a fabulous article on how Facebook is changing the definition of friendship and this is my follow-up article on this important issue.

1)    Possessive– “When you get cotton candy, you want it all to yourself…or you better get your share”
I have noticed that my friends and I are getting increasingly catty and possessive.  Even my typically laid back and carefree guy friends are saying things like: “Why did you post on Sam’s wall? And not on mine?”  Social networks make it much easier to keep tabs on each other and be possessive of the friends you have.

2)    Useless– “Cotton Candy has no nutritional value”
Ok, so you know your friend went pee twice today (seriously some of the stuff people put on is totally gross).  Many of the social applications, widgets, profile boxes and wall posts are somewhat fun, but mostly a waste of time.

3)    Numbing
– “Have you ever noticed, after a few bites cotton candy doesn’t taste so good, but you finish it anyway?”
In college, ok even still now, I get up and check Facebook first thing.  You get in the habit of mindlessly skimming through your friend’s newly updated photos, Facebook master notifications and new groups.  After a while you do it, because you HAVE TO STAY IN THE LOOP, not because you are actually interested.  There is even more pressure now to stay connected…literally.

4)    Superficial– “The second you put cotton candy in your mouth it dissolves, there really isn’t even anything to swallow.”
Even though you are getting 87 updates per day from your ‘closest friends’ widget you are not really getting to know them.  You might know a thousand hobbies, interests, favorite movies, which soccer mom you would be (check out my Facebook profile), but you cannot learn how they feel about their family, their self-esteem or what their friend’s values are.  The truth is, our generation is truly lacking deep connection with our friends and sometimes even our significant others.

5)    Misleading- “I always think cotton candy will fill me up or tide me over until dinner, I am always hungry right afterwards.”
You really do think you are in touch with your friends.  I think, well I know my friend is in a relationship, she just went to his beach house this weekend, no need to call, I am ‘up’ on her life.  It is easy to fall into the trap of “I know what they are doing and what they like, so I have connected with them”.  It takes a few sessions with my teens to get them to realize that this is not actually true friendship.

6)    Breakable– “Have you tried to eat cotton candy in the wind? No, right? That’s because cotton candy can’t exist in wind.”
We are constantly afraid that a wrong comment, misguided poke or unintentional post might offend or alienate us from our Facebook groups or friends.  Because the relationships are entirely based upon likes and dislikes and status updates, they can be easily broken by an awkward real life interaction or infrequent posting.  This can be stressful and anxiety provoking for us.

I run groups for cliques of girls to talk about their friendship issues, personal issues and overall strengthen their connection and it is shocking how often social networks are brought into the discussion.

I have to discuss the idea of cotton candy friends and that the ‘void’ or insecurity they are feeling in their relationships is most likely due to these seemingly real, but actually superficial friendships.  Please start talking to your kids about this issue and see if they start seeing the patterns, I often find that once they realize this is going on, they can take steps to develop better relations with a few key friends.

I said I am in a quarterlife crisis.  This is semi-true, I miss my friends.  All of my friends live far away and it gets very lonely just relying on the phone (and Facebook) to connect with them.  I wonder if it is difficult for me to make friends in Los Angeles because I am so used to online connections or there really is no one here I click with?

Part II: How to Help Teens Find Real Friends

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29 Responses to “Cotton Candy Friends: 6 Ways Net-Gen Connections are Changing”

  1. Katie
    July 25, 2008 at 4:21 am #

    Nice article. I like your cotton candy analogy. I also think it’s easy to fall into this cycle because everyone is so busy. I’m 29 (Yikes), so Facebook and the like weren’t really around when I was in college. I had a few close friends, but we hardly talk or see each other now because we’re busy with work, spouses, or tiny tykes. I know it’s not ideal, but I wish I could get them to blog or participate in something like Facebook.

    I’m definitely interested in part 2.

  2. Marni
    July 25, 2008 at 7:51 am #

    I love this article! I cannot wait to see a part II!

  3. Sandra Foyt
    July 25, 2008 at 12:52 pm #

    Interesting idea!? Cotton Candy Friends

    I wonder if this starts long before the Facebook Age. Even in elementary school, kids are friends with the kids they see in school or in after-school activities. When the school year ends, many of these friendships end as well. New interests, not enough time to coordinate out-of-context interaction.

    Now that my son is homeschooled, we have to make the effort to schedule friend time – unstructured play time. As a result, he and a couple of other kids are developing a stronger connection.

    Virtual play time isn’t a bad thing, but, I agree that everyone needs to have unstructured face to face time as well.

  4. RookieMom Heather
    July 31, 2008 at 9:38 am #

    As a grown-up of 35 with two little guys (1 and 3), I’m increasingly enjoying this cotton candy world, but I worry about what it will be like for my boys. Real friends are important too.

  5. Barb Desmarais
    July 31, 2008 at 10:07 am #

    I appreciate your insights around Facebook Vanessa. I love it but being in a completely different age group, my perspective is very different. My two kids though, who are 19 & 21 use it a lot, especially my 21 year old but I haven’t heard her share those same thoughts. She uses the “events” feature a lot and regularly plans things with her friends here locally. She’s mentioned how much easier it is to plan things because you can contact so many people at once and it’s so easy for them to respond.

    I just love how easy it is to share photos. I use it a lot as a business networking tool.

    Great article Vanessa!

  6. Kosovodad
    July 31, 2008 at 6:10 pm #

    Good analogy! I think your commentary and Barb’s last remark hit on something I am constantly reminding my staff of here in Korea.

    I call it, “What problem are we really trying to solve?” I see this a lot with the Army trying to use blogs, flickr, etc. We know we want “some of that” but we don’t know why, and we easily fall into the trap of spending a lot of time doing it, but for what, we don’t quite know yet.

    Sounds like some kids are doing it because it’s cool, but they may not be sure what they are supposed to be getting out of it..or they are finding out what they are getting out of it isn’t what they thought.


  7. Vanessa
    July 31, 2008 at 6:34 pm #

    Thanks for all this feedback everyone! I am realizing it is an really growing issue and it is starting to seep into many aspects of other teen life (including my own)

    I will work on Part II–maybe for boys, thank you for that tip


  8. Cliff Paige
    August 5, 2008 at 6:47 pm #

    I feel that cotton candy is a rip off because there is nothing to chew. Is it a solid, is it a liquid, what is it?

  9. Vanessa
    August 5, 2008 at 6:48 pm #

    And I think that is how most of these kids feel about their friends, when they actually need them, they are not there. And the ‘friend’ thing is hard to define, if you ask a lot of teens they have trouble telling what a friend actually is


  10. Amy
    September 24, 2008 at 6:20 am #

    yes, i’d love to see Part II – love your way of writing and cotton candy summed it up perfectly!!!

  11. Dav Frayne
    October 24, 2008 at 6:20 am #

    Each new communication technology tends to disrupt some of the old ways we related to people, as well as create new ways. I am old enough to remember when no one even had an answering machine, much less a computer or cellphone. But the core issues around friendship really weren’t different then.

    There is a yin and a yang to it, one side is looking for just the right match to what YOU want right now, in which case it helps to be able to quickly scan through an encyclopedia of people, like the big box stores are for products.

    The other side is looking for a challenge that wakes you up inside, which you get by NOT being “selective”, but going up to the first person you see and really connecting with THEM, getting into THEIR world, a world you otherwise would never see or choose. This is so totally opposite from what you want, but it ends up being much more satisfying.

    These two choices might be labeled “comfort” vs “adventure”. There’s a little of both on Facebook, though like the big box stores, it’s geared way more toward comfort.

  12. Suzette
    October 28, 2008 at 11:37 am #

    This is certainly the world my 13 year old is living in at the moment. Her friendships are so fleeting, and she complains about the lack of trust and comfort missing in her friendships. Is there any going back to facetime and ‘nurturing’ a friendship?

    I would be very interested in Part 2!!

  13. Vanessa Van Petten
    October 28, 2008 at 11:56 am #

    I am working on it, thanks Suzette!


  14. Mel
    December 5, 2008 at 8:43 am #

    Is this ok if I link this article in my facebook??

  15. Mel
    December 5, 2008 at 8:44 am #

    is it ok if I link this article to my facebook?

  16. Vanessa
    December 5, 2008 at 10:25 am #


    Yes please do!


  17. Kate Winslet
    April 28, 2009 at 4:08 am #


  18. CristiBee
    June 4, 2009 at 7:06 pm #

    Wow. This article is very well put. I think you’re absolutely right. Sometimes e-friendships can get a little out of control, but it’s all good if we remember how to balance. Good topic. Thank you.

  19. Vanessa Van Petten
    June 9, 2009 at 6:47 pm #


    and thanks so much for reading,


  20. online games for kids
    June 12, 2009 at 2:23 am #

    Great topic.. i think cotton candy friends is something that most of us has experinced it before. I couldnt live without cotton candy, even if i dont eat it that often, i will always miss it once in a while. just like my friends

  21. Linda Roeder
    August 20, 2009 at 3:39 pm #

    I don’t thing cotton candy friends are completely devoid of calories. I get quite a bit of substance from mine. It’s like a vitamin I need everyday. With them my life is fuller. A lot of my Facebook friends are also real life friends, but I get to find out what they’re doing outside of when I see them. It enriches our friendships. Others are friends I haven’t seen in years, decades. We keep in touch, this means the world.

  22. Arden Greenspan-Goldberg L.C.S.W.
    September 27, 2009 at 11:56 am #

    Hey Vanessa,

    Great article. I like the analogy and love your spin. I think some of my teen patients use Face book as a way to quickly connect and stay in touch with what they are all doing. Looking at recent pics is always fun.
    I think where trouble can lie is if it’s used to “check up” perhaps on an old former friend that has not deleleted you or you them. It gets a bit gummy and it’s like what for. Why do you need to continue to check this person out?
    Sometimes the postings are not superficial in fact it can be a bit too intimate. So, for Moms when they find out their daughter is doing that, and that has happened in my practice and in my real life, what are you to do as a parent?
    Food for thought Vanessa.
    Love to hear from you. My blog will be connected to my Web this Wednesday. But for now it’s


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