By Nikki Papadopulos
Edited by Gwendolyn Weiler
When Malia Griggs arrives home from a long day of classes and work, she typically heads straight to her laptop to share a funny moment with her friends – all 785 of them.
When people on Facebook respond to Griggs' status or comment on her photos, the 21-year-old University of South Carolina student said, she feels a sense of validation.
"It's kinda sad but true," she said, "but a funny wall post can brighten your whole day."
As with Griggs, young people's peers are incredibly influential in their lives, but today's online social media are significantly expanding the typical meaning of "peer group."
Young people are relying as much on their online social media communities as they are on their physical communities – like family and friends – for support, according to recent study in the Journal of Youth Studies.
While socializing online isn't replacing traditional group structures, it can have the same amount of influence, according to the study titled, "Young people identify with an online community almost as strongly a their own family."
Researchers polled users of Habbo, a popular social media site overseas with 90 percent of its users between 13 and 18 years old.
Bradley Smith, a clinical psychology professor and head of student service learning at the University of South Carolina, said peer groups are important for the development of adolescents' identities and values.
But he sees social networking as more of a fad that will pass. Smith says that when it comes to the important things, like deciding what values to adopt, youth are more likely to go to their parents.
"I'd like to see a study of the parents' perception," he said.
Posting their status helps youths communicate and offer support to one another online. Lauren Summerville, a student at The University of North Carolina-Greensboro, said she posts statuses about how she's feeling.
"Last month I had a breakdown and posted about it on Facebook," she said.
"People reached out to me, and it meant a lot; some of the people that posted I generally don't talk to, and we've just been Facebook friends for a while."
Summerville also posts song lyrics relating to what's going on in her life. She said it helps convey how she's feeling to many people at the same time, without having to come right out and say it.
"It kind of breaks down walls," she said.
People might also express themselves in their online communities and real-life communities in different ways, said Jason Martin, a graduate student in sociology at Temple University, who co-authored a recent study on Facebook and identity.
It found that youths are less likely to talk about certain subjects – like school and religion – in their online networks.
"Even though these values might be really meaningful to them, it's not something their going to post about," he said.
Certain topics might be seen as "uncool" by their peers, so it's likely they choose not to post about those out of fear of criticism, or because they want to be seen in a certain way, Martin said.
Gregory Wilkins, a recent University of South Carolina graduate, said he noticed that people seem to use Facebook as a way to express themselves.
"Facebook seems to be less serious, so you feel more open to write about what you want to say; people are using it to say, 'This is who I am,'" he said.
But Wilkins said he generally doesn't post anything he wouldn't want his family to see. His recent posts helped keep people updated on his job hunt, interviews and where he'll live.
"Maybe in the past people were less open," he said.