Building Virtual Friendships

TVCC researchers are exploring how to cultivate and support online friendships among children with disabilities


Do you remember those days in the schoolyard, the sun beaming down on the jungle gym while your best friend chased after you for that game of tag? Or maybe they finally talked you into trading that snack they’d been eyeing in your lunch pail? 

Friendship is a crucial part of every child’s life. As we grow up, those early bonds become part of who we are today. 

That’s why TVCC is dedicated to supporting children and youth with disabilities in every facet of their lives – including beneficial connections like friendship.  

With an entire research program focused on studying the factors that influence clients’ quality of life, clients can always look to TVCC for guidance and understanding. 

Today, TVCC researcher, Eric Smart, is part of a collaborative research effort with Holland Bloorview, working on studies that examine new and alternative ways to support youth with disabilities in achieving goals related to friendship.  

With these research efforts, TVCC is a part of ensuring that anyone who wants to have friends can have friends.  

The research group started by reviewing existing studies about supporting youth in socializing online. The group’s scoping review concluded that these three experiences are essential to making friends in virtual spaces: doing activities that increase social confidence, feeling safe to express oneself, and learning how to use technology independently.  

An established benefit of virtual spaces for youth is the ability to shape how their peers see them. They can adjust their environment, control what they share at their first meeting and take extra time to respond to messages. This flexibility helps overcome the barriers of shyness and nervousness as youth can take the time to type their thoughts.  

Given TVCC’s dedication to providing youth with the support and services that best further their goals, an additional study is investigating how TVCC and Holland Bloorview can bring more virtual social programming to clients.  

For the study Facilitating virtual social connections for youth with disabilities: lessons for post-COVID-19 programming, researchers conducted interviews and focus groups to determine what participants and service providers liked and disliked about the current virtual programs. 

During the study, one youth shared the positive impact of virtual programming on their life: “Honestly, it really helped me a lot overall as a person…I hope to see programs like this continue … I just still feel like I have a community that I belong to, and I think that says a lot, like, you don’t feel like you’re alone.” 

Findings also revealed that for some youth with disabilities, making friends through a virtual program may not be the most accessible or convenient option, but the only option available.  

 “There was one individual that didn’t want to turn on their camera and it was because they wanted to take time out of their wheelchair and so in order to do that they had to lie down. It made me wonder, would this youth not have been able to participate if they had to come onsite?” a service provider noted in the study.  

By exploring the design of effective virtual programs and how they encourage friendship, TVCC’s research is helping remove barriers to friendship, while actively creating environments that provide more opportunities for children and youth to form close bonds. 

With the support of TVCC, connection comes in all forms. Desktop screens load with smiling faces, empty seats in programs are filled with peers, that nagging voice saying “you don’t belong” starts to fade, and suddenly, as if all at once, friendships form. And the impact of that bond never fades. 

Read more great stories from our celebrations! magazine right here!

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