By Devorah Heitner
The Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project is one of my favorite sources for useful data on the ways kids and families use technology. In October 2015, the center released a study showing that (surprise!) kids are still falling in love, getting crushes, getting mad, getting even, etc. So things haven’t changed...that much. But for those parents who worry about the complications that technology brings to dating life, I have some good news: at least in 2015, most kids were not actually meeting or “hooking up” with other people online.
It may feel like dating has moved entirely to the Internet, but according to the same Pew study, only 8 percent of American teens have met a romantic partner online.
Expectations Change with Constant Connectivity
Once teens or tweens are involved romantically, their expectations are surely affected by the availability of constant connection. This is parallel to the changes in expectations we face in our own adult relationships. For example, my husband and I were dating before we had cell phones, yet today our expectations for being in contact (while far lower than those of teenagers!) are higher than they were before we had these devices with us at all times. Fully 85 percent of young people surveyed expected to hear from their partner at least once a day. Eleven percent expected to hear from their partners once an hour! Teens are just getting used to the physical and emotional changes that come with puberty, and one of those is the infatuation with others their age. While in the past, flirtatious exchanges may have been confined to lunch and the occasional movie, today every couple can keep in never-ending contact via their phones. When talking to your child, remind her that the fact that she can reach out to her crush at all times does not mean she has to. It’s okay not to text. On the other hand, flirting, dropping hints, and trying to figure out how mutual an interest is (age-old preoccupations) have moved more into the digital realm. In the Pew study, 50 percent of teens reported that they used Facebook or other social media platforms to flirt or express romantic intentions. While kids may still prefer to meet romantic partners at school or through friends, social media is often where they feel most comfortable discussing their feelings.
Kids can be clumsy, inept, and immature about relationships. After all, they are kids! In one of my focus groups, a girl described how boys badgered her with repeated texts until she texted back. Then one boy erased the previous texts to make it look as if the girl texted first, so he could show his friends, “Look, she texted me!” Kids on either end of this exchange might benefit from adult mentorship, or they may figure it out on their own by trial and error. Think about how you might mentor your child—on either end of the texting exchange where the boy badgered the girl into texting him.
Ask your kids: What are the most annoying things other kids do in these digital spaces? And how do kids deal with those things when they happen? One parent pointed out that marry/kiss/kill can also be an in‑person game. Digital connections just make it easier for answers to be shared widely. Talk with your children about the possible outcomes when people text or post messages intended to be kept between friends. Is that intent always honored? Ask your child if she has ever seen someone share a screenshot of someone’s personal texts. Why do people do it? Is it ever okay? How can you protect yourself, knowing that this is technically possible, and in fact happens frequently?
Adapted with permission from Screenwise by Devorah Heitner (Routledge, 2016).
Devorah Heitner, PhD, is the author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World (find it on Amazon: tinyurl.com/jetntc9). She is also the founder of Raising Digital Natives, which helps parents, schools, and kids grow a culture of positive digital citizenship. Want to learn more? Take the “How Screenwise Are You?” quiz at raisingdigitalnatives.com/how-screenwise-are-you.