Technology and Teen Dating
Written By: Sarah McLaughlin, LMFT, Site Supervisor, ACS On-Campus Counseling Program
Teen relationships can often seem mysterious in this digital age. It’s not always easy for a parent to ascertain the nature of their child’s relationships or to keep track of the ups and downs that take place during these romantic relationships. How are teens meeting romantic partners? How is technology used in their relationships? The Pew Research Institute conducted research on this very topic and published its findings in 2015. The hope is that the findings will help parents have a better understanding of the role that technology plays in their teen’s dating life and how they can be supportive even if they lack personal experience with these new norms.
Here are some facts given the research:
Most Teens are NOT meeting their romantic partners online.
It might seem like every teenager spends 90% of the day on their phone at this point. But, the research indicates that most teens are meeting romantic partners in real life and establishing relationships with people who they have met and spent time with in person. Only a quarter of teens who are dating (8% of all teens) have met someone they have dated online. While this may sound alarming, the social media venues that these teens use to connect with people are usually through friends of friends. Social media apps will suggest people for users to befriend based on connections that they have in common. While the thought of a teen meeting up with someone they have met online sounds risky, many teens also use social media and the internet to research the person extensively as well.
High expectations are placed on communication in teen relationships.
When a teen is in a romantic relationship, technology has dictated the new norms around communication. 72% of teens in a relationship text with their partner every day vs. the 39% who talk on the phone daily. If you’re getting worried about the amount of time your teen spends on their phone communicating with their partner, it may help to know that the most common type of information communicated is the sharing of humorous or “funny” material: 85% of teens say that this is the most common information shared online. 85% of teens in a relationship expect to hear from their partner daily, 11% expect communication hourly.
Teens are aware of the lack of privacy in their relationships – and they don’t all like it.
Social media has impacted privacy for all of its users, adults and teens alike. In the context of teen dating though, it has greatly decreased the amount of privacy a teen has in a relationship compared to generations passed. 27% of teens who are dating have used social media to track their significant other’s whereabouts and 22% of teens in a relationship have shared their social media passwords with their significant other. While many teens willingly allow this behavior to occur as they see it as a display of trust — “I have nothing to hide, so why would I care if he has my password?”– they are still somewhat uneasy with the public nature of their relationships online and the lack of privacy in general.
It can be difficult to spot controlling behavior.
It may be difficult to spot controlling behaviors in today’s teen relationships where tracking each other’s whereabouts and having frequent contact is common. Teens may have a difficult time identifying where these behaviors cross the line between charming and worrisome. One third of teens in a relationship report that they have had a partner check up on them, and their whereabouts, (who they are with, what they’re doing) many times a day. Many of the borderline “controlling” behaviors that may occur during the relationship are equally as likely to occur after the relationship is over. How do these relationships usually end? As much as teens use their phones to start and maintain relationships, they still largely believe that ending a relationship is best done in person, as “breaking up with someone using text messaging or social media is largely frowned upon.” When a teen relationship ends, it is normal for the teen to go through their profile and “prune” it of reminders of the relationship: photos, messages, shared friends. It is also common for the teen to block their ex from social media sites and to delete them from their phone – female teens seem to engage in this behavior more than males.
Tips on how to be a supportive Parent:
- Educate yourself on the norms of teens relationships and communication
If you set a limit on how much your teen can use their phone and receive a lot of push back from them, it will be helpful to know that the limit may be infringing upon the communication expectations in their relationship. This could be a great opportunity to inquire about the norms around communication in their relationship and to hear what their expectations are.
- Try to be open and non-judgmental
Your teen is more likely to open up and be honest with you if they feel that they aren’t being judged. Whether or not the norms of today’s dating with technology confuse or upset you, try to approach your teen from a curious and open place. Instead of assuming they are engaging in an unhealthy behavior (let’s say, texting with their girlfriend all day) ask them how they feel about having that much contact, and what they are getting out of it.
- Be aware during times of conflict or during a break-up
Your teen may have trouble unplugging from a conflict or healing from a break-up if they are constantly exposed to social media and their phone. Be curious about whether this is helping or hurting. If you notice that they seem angry or depressed suggest or require that they take a break from their phone.
- Keep an eye out for controlling or abusive patterns
As mentioned above, this can be tricky when the norms in many teen relationships are more controlling than what parents might deem as normal. Cues to whether this behavior is dysfunctional might come from your teens mood and whether they appear stressed, depressed, afraid or overwhelmed by their relationship and the contact they are having. If you become concerned, approach your teen and share what you’ve observed. “I have noticed you are texting with ____ a lot and you often seem upset. Are things ok there?” Give them the opportunity to let you know if this behavior also seems abnormal or excessive to them. If you label it as such right away, you may lose the opportunity for them to be open with you.