Being a good friend means being there for someone while they’re hitting some bumps in the road. It means offering love and support when you notice someone needs it the most. It can mean simply being a shoulder for them to cry on — but that can be hard to do when it comes to helping an online friend, someone you may never have met in person.
With everyone spending more and more time online, online friendships are becoming more and more common. Online is no longer just to maintain friendships made at school or work, but also to forge entirely new ones with peers while browsing social networks or playing online games. Similarly, your feed is also likely filled with friends you haven’t seen or spoken to in years — fringe friends from high school, old acquaintances, and former coworkers — people who are far from your best buds, but whose startling posts or cries for help can make you worry just the same.
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It isn’t always clear what you should do when you notice an online friend is in need. After all, the Internet is ripe with emotional oversharing; so when do you step in and how can you do it through a screen
The following tips are a guide for what to say to an online friend who needs help as well as resources for professional support, too:
How to be Supportive to an Online Friend in Need
Don’t worry about it not being your place
Don’t think you’ll somehow make things worse for your friend by intervening. This person likely doesn’t feel comfortable asking people in his or her everyday life help, so your presence is important and valuable.
Reach out in private
While someone might be making their grief public, make your support private in order to make your friend feel safe enough to open up. Sending a private message online is a good option — even something as simple as “I saw your post and I’m thinking of you”— but it’s even better to call, text, or ask to see your online friend in person if that is an option.
Help provide options
Before talking to your friend, research resources available for dealing with the issue they are struggling with. Then, relay these options to your friend. There is always help available if you or a loved one are in need of support. There are many organizations and hotlines available that provide 24/7 support for those trying to get help.
And, know that you don’t have to carry your friend’s burden alone. Just like you have an online bond, online therapy might be a great resource to your friend and is something you can suggest. Your online friend may appreciate the confidentiality that comes from a screen — after all, the internet is how you maintain your connection — and online therapy offers just that, but with a licensed therapist. When you first begin online therapy, you have the option to use a nickname or pseudonym with your therapist. While not required, it’s an option that may make your friend feel more comfortable with the therapeutic process.
Your online friend may be posting troubling statuses or reaching out for help because he or she thinks they don’t have support and no one is listening. Let them vent and know they are being heard. Pay full attention to what they’re saying and reflect back what you hear. Whether in person or in writing, saying things like “I understand” and “I’m listening” will help validate that person’s feelings and make them be more receptive to your advice.
Give them hope
When a person is going through a tough time, it can be hard for them to see that they’ll eventually feel better. Comfort your friend by telling them that getting help can make them feel better. Mental illness is treatable. Yes, if you haven’t been to therapy the idea can feel scary, — you might end up dedicating a few months to the process — but the result is worth the investment.
Don’t Let the Screen Be a Barrier
Remember that just as with any person or relationship, you cannot fix the person or control what he or she does going forward. All you can do is offer your support and share resources. Whether it’s a close friend or a distant acquaintance, don’t let the screen between you stop you from being there to help. You might be the first person who listens, believes, or encourages them to seek treatment, and that can change that person’s life. You’re doing the right thing by reaching out, and remember it’s not all on you — there are professionals who can help.