Establishing ties or strengthening friendships? Students' use of online social networks in intercultural friendship development

Baohua YU, Yick Wah LEUNG*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review


This study was conducted to achieve the following objectives: (1) determine the differences and reasons for using outgroup OSNs by gender, age and student groups (Mainland and Hong Kong [HK] students); (2) uncover the impact of online social networks (OSNs) on the development of Mainland–HK friendships and (3) determine the roles of different OSNs (social networking sites [SNSs] and instant messaging platforms [IMPs]) in the development of intercultural friendships in the real world.

To explore how OSNs facilitate (or inhibit) intercultural interactions, 198 students completed a questionnaire and 24 students participated in follow-up semi-structured interviews examining the role of OSNs in intercultural friendship development.

Results revealed that demographic and motivational preferences for using outgroup-OSNs differed among students. Both IMPs and SNSs helped students maintain friendships using little effort, whereas it tended to strengthen their existing social networks, rather than helping to start new friendships. IMPs helped develop a sense of “presence awareness”, strengthening pre-existing friendships and solidifying offline connections. SNSs also assisted students in exploring their shared interests while revealing their values and cultural differences.

Research limitations/implications
The authors’ findings offered empirical evidence on social exchange theory and anxiety-uncertainty management theory regarding the perceived benefit of OSNs on students' friendship development.

Practical implications
The study sheds light on the differences between Mainland Chinese and HK students, including participants' perceptions of different friendship stages.

This study is interested in the roles of different SNSs and IMPs in intercultural friendship development, especially their strengths and weaknesses as perceived by students. Also, the authors are curious about how students select and use IMPs and SNSs differently according to their individual preferences and needs. To the authors’ knowledge, the dynamic link between online communication and intercultural friendship development has not been thoroughly examined in the field of intercultural communication.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)815-834
Number of pages20
JournalInformation Technology and People
Issue number2
Early online date17 Mar 2023
Publication statusPublished - 18 Mar 2024

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023, Emerald Publishing Limited.


  • Instant messaging platforms
  • Intercultural communication
  • Intercultural friendship
  • Online social networks
  • Social networking sites


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