A Parents Guide to Teen Dating in the Digital Age

For parents, the idea their teens are going to start dating can strike a mix of anxiety, stress, and fear. Here's everything parents need to know about teen dating in the digital age.

high school couple
Photo: Alex Sandoval

Growing up in Staten Island, New York, Heidi Parker* attended Catholic schools in a close-knit community where literally everyone knew each other. While her parents allowed Parker to date as a teen, parental and societal pressure, along with some self-described "Catholic guilt," meant that the expectation was no sex before marriage. It also meant she didn't get to have many open conversations with trusted adults about dating or sex.

Now a New Jersey-based mom to three kids—including two teens—Parker wants her children to have a different dating experience than she did. She strongly believes in open and honest communication with her 13-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter.

"The best and only way to keep my kids safe and well prepared is to educate them," she says.

During the pandemic, though, Parker learned just how much socialization occurs online, especially for teens, and realized how much of an impact that can have on their dating lives. While teens aren't using dating apps at the same rate as adults, digital platforms do play a significant role in how they interact with a crush—and that can come with safety issues. Experts say parents can and should help their teens navigate dating by teaching them about safety, boundaries, and privacy in this digital world.

Talk About Dating Early

Parents should start foundational conversations about what healthy relationships mean as early as elementary school. While these conversations don't have to be exclusive to dating, building parent-child trust is critical to these ongoing conversations that can mature as children do.

"In middle school, kids may start to feel pressure to date," says R.J. Jackson, D.D.S., an Austin, Texas-based teen and family life coach and former orthodontist. He cautions, though, that many pre-teens, and even teens, may not feel ready. And that is totally normal since there really is no set age to start dating.

But when parents create that foundation, kids will know they can trust and have open communication with them when they do begin dating. And these conversations can help build self-esteem and self-awareness, allowing kids to get in touch with who they are as individuals before they start a romantic relationship.

Discuss the Pros and Cons of Digital Dating

A 2015 survey from the Pew Research Center of teens ages 13 to 17 found that about a quarter of teens have dated or hooked up with someone they first met online. Half of teens have also let someone know they are interested by adding them on social media, and 31 percent have sent flirtatious messages on a social media platform.

Online socializing can be positive. It can help teens get to know a potential romantic partner better before hanging out in person. It can also help some teens break the ice. According to the Pew Research Center survey, about one-third of teens feel most comfortable letting someone know they are interested in them by interacting on social media.

But there are also negatives—and some can be serious. Tori Cordiano, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and director of research for Laurel School's Center for Research on Girls in Ohio, says some teens may have unrealistic ideas about expectations versus reality when going on a first date after meeting someone online. There's also the potential of dealing with unwanted advances and online harassment. In fact, 35 percent of teen girls have blocked or unfriended someone whose flirting made them uncomfortable, while 16 percent of teen boys said the same, according to the Pew survey.

Focus on digital safety

In today's world, teens send flirty messages back and forth via social media and publicize their relationships on their accounts. But experts point out it's important for teens to know their digital footprint can last a lifetime and how to stay safe. Samantha Greene, LCSW, a clinical social worker with the Greener Pastures Wellness in Plano, Texas, advises parents to prepare teens for what they should do if someone does or says something that makes them feel icky or when a situation just does not feel right.

What about online dating? While the Pew study found most teens are typically dating people from in-person methods, it's important for your kid to know how to protect themselves if they do meet someone online.

Initiate conversations with them about online predators. Teens should also know it's totally OK to block a user who makes them uncomfortable in any way or delete the app entirely. And they should avoid meeting anyone from an online platform by themselves or without telling anyone their whereabouts. "If your child tells you they are going on a date, ask your kid what they mean and get the details of who is going to be there, like if it's a group event or one-on-one," says Greene. "[Whether] teens are meeting someone new or going on a date with someone they know already, parents must communicate with their teens about safety expectations and let their teen know the time they are expected home."

Greene adds: "Let your teens know they can text you to pick them up or get an Uber home, no matter what."

Also, remind kids never to share personal information online, including their home address, full name, or locations, and prepare them for the potential pitfalls that could happen online, like catfishing or adults misrepresenting themselves as teens, Dr. Cordiano points out.

Most importantly, it's critical for parents to really listen to their kids when having these conversations. "Don't automatically try to tell your kids, 'You are too young for this.' You do not want to alienate your kids from talking to you," says Greene. "You want to be a resource for your kids. Model open communication."

And be available. New Jersey mom Parker makes it a point to remind her children they should come talk to her if potential privacy situations arise online or in real life.

Look Out for Teen Dating Red Flags

If your teen is actively dating, experts encourage parents to keep an eye out for red flags. Dr. Jackson says he would be immediately concerned if a teen is not making time for anything but their relationship, starts avoiding previous interests like sports, or stops seeing their friends. "If a straight-A teen starts dating and then they start failing all of their classes, parents have to check in," he explains.

If your teen appears isolated, that's not a good sign either. "If you are noticing that your teen is overly secretive or if they don't want you to meet this person they are dating, that's a red flag," says Dr. Cordiano.

Teens may also be subjected to controlling and jealous digital behavior from their partner. That can include forcing them to remove exes from their friend list or demanding social media passwords. This kind of behavior is a red flag for potential problems, including teen domestic violence, according to Dr. Cordiano, and parents should step in.

As a life coach, Dr. Jackson often facilitates communication between teens and parents if there are any difficulties. "Sometimes we have to coach both sides on how to communicate," he says. Parents should communicate their family values, helping teens understand how to navigate a situation. When parents and teens are not seeing eye to eye, they can also get help from trained professionals who are available to help teens identify potential blind spots and learn how to stay safe.

But most importantly, don't be too hard on yourself or your teen. Having these conversations can be difficult and it's OK if the discussions don't go as planned.

"Your teen needs the same thing that parents need: connection, grace, and understanding," says Dr. Cordiano. "Don't think that teens are not going to make mistakes. That's also true for parents."

*Name has been changed for privacy.

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