Dating used to mean sharing a milkshake, catching a drive-in movie, or going dancing on a Friday night. Now it means exchanging heart emoticons and updating one’s Facebook relationship status.
Teenage romance has taken a turn for the digital. The perks are obvious: SnapChatting is cheaper than the movies, and heartfelt sentiments are easier to text than to say. Parents may also feel that digital dates are less risky than too much alone time. The downsides, though, may outweigh the advantages. Online relationships have their own pitfalls, and fail to prepare teens for real world relationships.
One of the draws and the dangers of the internet is the ease of anonymity. Not only can teens obscure their names and personal information, personalities and inner selves can be reinvented. Over digital messaging, shy kids can flirt with boldness, inexperienced teens can fabricate a history, and a “cool” image is easier to maintain.
Catfishing (falsifying one’s identity to trick or humiliate a potential dating partner) and sexting are two widely publicized dangers of online relationships, but teens in these relationships are disadvantaged in other ways as well.
An online relationship deprives teens of the learning experiences inherent in young dating. Asking for, planning, and going on dates are largely nonexistent in these relationships. The couple may spend some time together, but the time together is more likely to be informal hanging out or within the structure of the school day.
Digital communication provides an easy out for the tough conversations. Romantic overtures, working through conflict, and breaking up are all easier to type than to verbalize. Rejection is easier to handle privately. Teens aren’t learning to master emotionally fraught in-person communication, and so they are less prepared for adulthood and mature relationships.
Real relationships do not occur in a vacuum. There are schedules and obstacles, family and friends. Online relationships float through cyberspace with nothing else from real life to anchor them. This sets up unrealistic expectations for other relationships, which have to deal with mundane realities such as homework, parents, and planning a date for Friday night.
Unfortunately, digital relationships do not completely exist in a vacuum, either. The toxic, sexualized culture of the internet seeps into cyber relations all too easily. Most teen boys would balk at approaching a girl in real life and commenting on her physical attractiveness, but they eagerly mimic Tinder etiquette and text “URH” (“you are hot”) to female acquaintances. The receptive girls escalate in their responses, and the parties become more comfortable more quickly with each other than they would in an off-line exchange.
Parents, online dating has arrived for teens and tweens and evolved into digital romances. Even if kids are restricted from online messaging apps like Kik, SnapChat, and Facebook Messenger, the same patterns of behavior can still happen over simple texting on non-smart phones. Know who your kid hangs out with digitally as well as off-line, and teach them to balance online exchanges with real life fun.
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