While technology has made it easier than ever for young people to meet new people, communicate with romantic partners, and carry on long distance relationships, it’s also created a host of new challenges and risks for young people when it comes to self-esteem, privacy, harassment, and abuse.
Experts agree that in order to prepare teens to face these issues in safe and healthy ways, it’s essential to engage in early and open conversations about boundaries, respect, and consent. In addition, it’s important for parents to showcase what healthy relationships—romantic or otherwise—look like at home, because online behavior is inevitably shaped by offline experiences.
Though online dating is nothing new, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an increased reliance on apps and digital romance for teens’ and young adults’ dating lives. We’ve invited a distinguished panel of researchers, clinicians, educators, and parenting experts to share their tips for maintaining and promoting safe and healthy relationships in the digital world.
Talk, Don’t Police
As teens learn to self-regulate their online lives, as well as develop the tools they need to succeed in interpersonal relationships, it is neither helpful nor sustainable for parents to police every element of teens’ online lives. “Today’s youth don’t distinguish between their online and offline lives,” says Jeff Temple, PhD, psychologist and Founding Director of the Center for Violence Prevention at the University of Texas Medical Branch. “Modeling healthy relationships at home, having regular, ongoing conversations about dating, relationships, and sex, and encouraging kids to trust their instincts will teach them to make good decisions and develop healthy relationships in both the online and offline worlds.”
Make Boundaries, and Stick to Them
Navigating relationships can be difficult for young people who are still learning what is and isn’t acceptable behavior, and the internet only complicates that process. “Being asked to send a nude might seem like a compliment the first time, but if you decline and the person keeps asking, that’s a form of harassment,” says Megan Maas, PhD, Assistant Professor at Michigan State University. “Additionally, if someone is texting you dozens of times throughout the day and asking where you are and what you’re doing, that’s a form of stalking.” Parents can support their teens in setting boundaries by discussing what they are comfortable with and can set the stage for healthy adolescent relationships by practicing bodily autonomy and consent with their children from a young age.
Practice What You Preach
Watching parents model healthy communication practices both online and off teaches kids to do the same. “The way parents talk to others on their cell phone or respond to social media posts is learned by children,” says Sarah Taylor, PhD, CFLE, Assistant Professor of Child Development and Family Studies at California State University, Long Beach. “Additionally, parent-child conversations should start early on topics like ‘using kind words’ and ‘you decide what happens to your body.’” Taylor suggests that parents talk with their children when unkind messages are shared around them, including on TV or social media, by asking questions such as “How do you think those words made that boy feel?” These conversations should advance as children age to questions like “How do you think you would feel if someone asked you to send a picture of yourself like the girl in that movie?” “Parents should approach these conversations with a calm and interested manner,” says Taylor. “Laying the foundation early for judgment-free conversations fosters a space for open dialogue and can empower children to address unhealthy relationships if they occur.”
As a parent, it’s important to learn about risk factors and warning signs of dating violence so that you can help your child understand what constitutes healthy or unhealthy relationship behaviors, as well as what resources exist for those who may need help and support. “While not all relationships start online, most involve the use of technology (e.g. text messaging, social media, etc.) to communicate, flirt, and show interest in partners,” says Alison Marganski, PhD, Associate Professor & Director of Criminology at Le Moyne College. “It’s important to note that dating abuse includes not only in-person acts of physical, sexual, and/or psychological violence, but also technology-facilitated harms (e.g. online harassment, cyberstalking, ‘revenge pornography’ and other forms of image-based abuse).” Marganski notes that many of the traditionally recommended strategies for dealing with these issues involve blocking the harasser, turning off the device, or other actions that don’t address the root cause of the problem (the perpetrating party) and very well may cause further harm to the victims/survivors and their communities. “It’s essential for parents to have conversations with their kids about respect, boundaries, privacy, consent, and more,” she explains. “It’s also important to teach others to be active bystanders so that they may safely and effectively intervene to confront problematic behavior while also supporting victims/survivors.”
Get Involved, but Don’t Spy
Joining the social networks your children use and becoming “friends” with them can help open up lines of communication about healthy boundaries and online safety. “Ask to see your teen’s profiles and the profiles of people that they’re interested in,” says Sarah Flicker, PhD, Professor, Faculty of Urban and Environmental Change at York University. “Explore them together and learn about what your teen finds attractive. Showing interest in your teen’s romantic life at the front-end will make it easier for them to confide in you if/when they run into trouble.” In addition, Flicker reminds parents that it’s important to acknowledge the intense emotions that go along with adolescence and make sure that your teen feels seen and heard when they’re upset.
Talk the Talk (Early)
It’s no secret that kids use apps and visit websites that aren’t meant for people their age, which means that it’s essential for parents to equip their children with the tools to navigate these technologies early. “Parents will want to discuss with young people what sort of information should be kept private and not included in profiles or conversations with others,” says Stefanie Duguay, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Concordia University. “It’s also important to talk about how to identify behavior that shifts from flirty to non-consensual, aggressive, or harassing, and to help youth feel comfortable using the ‘block’ and ‘report’ features in addition to speaking with an adult if they feel like their safety has been threatened.”
Use Stories to Open Dialogue
Teens sometimes find it easier discussing and answering questions that don’t directly concern them, which means that sharing movies, TV shows, and even video games can provide a jumping off point for productive conversations. “Parents can ask questions using themes and storylines in the program they’re watching,” says Terri Orbuch, PhD, professor at Oakland University in Michigan and author of “5 Simple Steps To Take Your Marriage From Good To Great.” “For instance: ‘When you love someone, what does that mean? Do you think the person in the movie loved that other person? How can you tell if someone is your friend? Do you think those two people were friends in the movie? Could the person in the movie have told an adult about the digital abuse, and if so, who could they have reached out to?’” Orbuch reminds parents to make sure that they’re always asking age-appropriate questions and raising age-appropriate topics with their children.
“Unhealthy relationship behaviors are all around us,” adds Joris Van Ouytsel, PhD, Assistant Professor at Arizona State University’s Hugh Downs School of Human Communication. Dr. Van Ouytsel notes that cyber dating abuse behaviors, such as tracking a romantic partner, snooping through a cell phone, or excessive texting are often shown on screen. “These techniques are often used for comedic effect in these shows, however they may wrongly suggest that these behaviors are the norm. When you see these behaviors on the TV screen, you can use the example as a conversation starter to discuss healthy and unhealthy relationship behaviors. This structure makes it a lot easier to start the ‘talk’ with your children about a sensitive topic such as cyber dating abuse.”
Reflect Before You Share
While young people may feel comfortable sharing images or posting personal information within the perceived safety of a relationship or behind the anonymity of the internet, it’s important for them to remember that anything they post may someday become public. “Parents should have an open conversation with their children about their ‘digital billboard’ and caution them that anything they say or do online—even with their boyfriends or girlfriends—can resurface in the future,” says Michelle Drouin, PhD, Purdue University Fort Wayne & Parkview Mirro Center and author of the upcoming book, “How To Survive An Intimacy Famine.” “These conversations can help kids create healthy habits around phone use in relationships.”
Shift the Narrative
Practically every individual who uses an online dating service is bound to experience some form of rejection sooner or later. Furthermore, it’s important for young people to understand that if they don’t get swipes or have success with online dating, so much of it has to do with the algorithms of these dating apps. “Social rejection hurts and is associated with a variety of negative outcomes, including feelings of sadness and anger,” says Ariella Lenton-Brym, MA, Doctoral Student at Ryerson University. “Accordingly, teenagers who use online dating programs may need to be equipped to cope with social rejection and its consequences.” Lenton-Brym suggests helping teens learn to notice patterns of negative thinking (e.g., “No one will ever want to date me”) and challenge those thoughts with evidence from their real life (e.g,, “Many people have expressed interest in getting to know me; this individual’s actions do not represent what is typical in my life”).
Meeting new people online is often exciting, especially when you really like them, but even if you’re well matched, it’s not unusual to feel shy and awkward when you actually meet in person. “This can be a little more pronounced during a pandemic, when there are new rules of behavior,” says Elizabeth Englander, PhD, Bridgewater State University. “To help overcome that shyness, think in advance about what you’re going to do (elbow-bump? wave?) and what you can talk about (school? your job?). Don’t hesitate to ask the person what type of greeting makes them comfortable, too.”
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