By |Published On: February 14th, 2022|Categories: Media Psychology, Pam Rutledge, School of Psychology|

Online Dating and Teens: Looking For Love in Digital Places

KEY POINTS

  • Interest in dating, intimacy and romantic love is a normal part of adolescence
  • Increased use of social media during COVID has turned online dating into just plain ‘dating’
  • The joys and heartbreaks of virtual and online relationships can feel every bit as real as IRL
  • The best way to keep online dating positive and safe is to focus on building healthy relationships and problem-solving skills

If your teen is interested in mantic or physical relationships, they probably are already engaged in some form of online dating.  During adolescence, kids begin to build an identity and sense of self, and it is only natural that an interest in dating, intimacy, and romantic love would follow. It’s not surprising that dating would be online when 95% of teens have a smartphone.

Both on and offline, dating helps kids build social skills and grow emotionally. The increased use of social media due to COVID has shifted social norms about dating. Online dating is now just ‘dating.’ A 2021 Bumble survey showed that after a year of social distancing, 91% of the respondents felt there was no longer a stigma attached to meeting someone online or on a dating app and 2 in 3 believed it was possible to fall in love without meeting IRL.  The prevalence of dating apps like Tinder, Bumble. and many others have made ‘swiping right’ part of the common lexicon. Dating apps, along with virtual activities like games and social media, can all provide meaningful ways of connecting with others to create and maintain healthy relationships.

Can kids really hang out online?

teen-dating-appMaking friends online doesn’t have to start with a dating app.   Online and IRL are all one world for teens. Don’t be surprised if your teens keep video chat open on one device while they play Roblox or Minecraft with friends on another. Many platforms let players organize online spaces into digital rooms where IRL and online friends hang out just as they would if they were in their room at home.

Despite our worries with increased screen time, research suggests that bullying, cyberbullying, sexting, and fighting showed only slight or no increases. However, anxiety and depression have increased dramatically. Social media can give kids positive social experiences that maintain or restore emotional equilibrium by helping them feel connected.

Are virtual relationships real?

Online relationships can be “hyperpersonal “and actually feel as strong as face-to-face relationships. Online interaction ranges from synchronous video, like Facetime, to completely asynchronous exchanges, where the time between interactions gives kids time to think before responding. This lag can alleviate some of the common social anxieties of the teen years, from shyness to feeling tongue-tied. It also can remove the emphasis from external things, like looks, and allow teens to get to know each other as people first.

The ability to connect with more authenticity increases trust and closeness. Like love letters throughout history, texts, emails, videos, and DMs are savable. They give the receiver time to read a message over and over again, increasing the sense of connection.

What are the benefits of online dating?

Like hanging out, online dating can be a source of connectedness and a chance to learn about interpersonal relationships. Teens invest a lot of time texting and messaging potential love interests on social media. These different avenues for communication can make dating easier because teens can try things out and observe how others behave, particularly anxious or shy kids.

How do I know if my teen is ready for an online relationship or dating?

Dating, online or off, is developmentally appropriate. Thanks to COVID, many teens have had their first relationship online because they can’t go out. Flirting online is common, but the rules of dating online aren’t clear, making dating even more complex and stressful for a teen than it already was.

The best thing you can do is keep the lines of communication open. Help your kids develop healthy, caring relationships of mutual respect by modeling the behaviors you want to see on and offline. Teen dating is very emotion-intensive, and even online, dating can feel just as real as IRL, and break-ups are just as painful.  Be a safe place for your child to bring their questions or confide their experiences. The worst things you can do are tease your teen or minimize or deny their emotions.

Should you allow your teen to date online?

“Allow” is a funny concept in the age of digital devices with 24/7 access. Like holding a beachball underwater, you can’t really control all your kids’ online activities.

Nevertheless, as parents, we worry about the effects of things like sexting, cyberbullying, ghosting, catfishing, and FOMO. That’s our job. Research, however, suggests that for most kids, nothing really bad happens. However, statistics don’t count for much when it’s your kid.

The best way to protect your kid is to address online relationships before they become an issue. Have conversations with your kids about what dating is like and how it is affected by social media (not to mention a pandemic). It’s likely as confusing for them as for you. The rules of dating are confusing enough IRL. Starting the conversations before they are needed can alleviate a lot of the emotion and potential embarrassment because it isn’t so personal yet.

Pro tip: When you talk with your kids, define your terms so you are both talking about the same thing. Words may mean different things to you than they do to your kids. For example, what is ‘dating’ versus ‘hanging out’ versus ‘hooking up?’ Or ‘ghosting’ versus zombieing’ versus a ‘slow fade’ or ‘cuffing.’ Be prepared to expand your dating-culture vocabulary.

What are the risks of online dating?

Many parents worry about predators, but there are other much more likely risks. Sexting, for example, while not an epidemic, does happen. It is more likely to occur among emerging adults, but your child needs to understand the serious social and psychological consequences of nonconsensual sexts and the potential legal issues. State laws vary, but just having sexts on your phone can result in felony charges for child pornography and a lifetime of membership on the sex offenders list.

Teens can have unrealistic ideas about dating and relationships from the media and peers. Dating isn’t how it looks in a Disney movie (or in porn). It’s easy to believe things we want to be true. This tendency in online dating can have two consequences: 1) it can make teens vulnerable to scams, coercion, and manipulation, or 2) it can create unachievable stereotypes and standards that create unhealthy or unsustainable relationships.

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See my post on Psychology Today “8 Ways to Help Your Kids Keep Online Dating Safe & Positive” for specific strategies.

About the Author: Pam Rutledge

Pamela Rutledge, PhD, is a scholar-practitioner, integrating her expertise in media psychology with 20+ years as a media producer. A member of the faculty at Fielding Graduate University since 2008, Dr. Rutledge teaches in the areas of brand psychology, audience engagement and narrative meaning. Dr. Rutledge consults with entertainment companies, such as 20th Century Fox Films and Warner Bros., on data strategies and audience narratives. Dr. Rutledge has published both academic and popular work, including a text on positive psychology and psychological appeal for fans of the Twilight Saga and resilience in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She has also written book chapters on meaning-making and fandom, transmedia narrative engagement, and positive media psychology. She authors “Positively Media” for Psychology Today and is also a frequent expert source on media use and popular culture for media outlets such as The NY Times, The BBC World and ABC News. She holds a PhD and an MBA.

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