Dating for teens today may look very different than it used to, but there's still romance hiding behind those DMs and memes. In this week's 'Teen Talk,' those nuances are explained.

By Elle Grant
March 13, 2020
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Illustration by Emma Darvick

Young and old alike, we've seen the movies, we know the routine. Boy meets girl. Boy impresses girl with a romantic gesture. Boy meets girl's parents when he picks her up for a date. Boy does something to mess up his blossoming romance with girl. Following a musical montage and a generous apology, all is well. Roll credits. It's a linear and easy to follow model. It also no longer exists.

Instead, teens are navigating an ever-changing scene with heads and hearts caught up in the process. Plus, teens are more open and understanding of their own gender, sexuality, and romantic interests from a younger age than ever before. Through the media and popular TV shows like Euphoria, teens have examples of relationships with more layers than '80s movies can offer. It can seem like a foreign world to you, our parents, but there are a few important things I want you to know about dating in the modern age.

Romance Isn't Dead, It Has Evolved

It's an easy complaint for parents to file: Romance is dead! And to an extent, you're right. Romance as you knew it may be gone, but it doesn't mean today's romances are less worthy.

My mom, as supportive as she is, is guilty of this thinking. She bemoans the fact that my sister and I haven't received lengthy, melodramatic love letters from any suitors, and that my brothers seem reluctant (to say the least) to send any. And it's true, I haven't discovered any sonnets at my doorstep, but that doesn't mean romance itself has expired.

Today's teens still find thought and effort more romantic than anything else. The means of executing these romantic gestures have merely changed. Today, a romantic gesture may be something small, like a good morning or good night text. It can also be more public like writing hearts or a flirty note on someone's public social media post. The grandest gesture of all for high schoolers is an elaborate invitation to prom, called a promposal. Come spring, pictures of these over-the-top invites—think twinkly lights strewn across the school football field or a scavenger hunt across town ending with an invite—can be seen all over social media. While I am old-fashioned and do wish a sonnet would show up at my doorstep now and then, overall, teens are uninterested in following any type of existing romantic model and prefer to chart their own course.

Teenagers want to be happy and in love, like many adults. The way we get there and the way we express it has merely evolved.

The Internet Is a Game Changer

The internet changed dating irreversibly and that isn't news to any parent. Why write a love letter when you can send a tweet or DM to convey all your romantic feelings? Social media, for better and worse, creates a social standard many couples feel they must measure up to. There is the romance that happens away from the public feeds—flirting, meme-sending, and chatting in direct messages—before a budding couple even graduates to texting or sometimes even meeting in person. And in a more public avenue, the biggest, most romantic gestures—like a promposal—seem to gain value based on how many likes it gets and not how happy the couple actually is. This may feel overwhelming, but for most teens, it is just what's expected.

There's Gray Area in Lingo

Teen romance is, admittedly, full of gray areas. Even the descriptor "dating" is reserved for very official couples who are public about their relationship to the world (and social media). Working backward from this point takes a dictionary. There is "hanging out" and "hooking up," phrases that are pointedly casual, but don't offer clear terms of agreement. "Talking" also falls into a strange middle ground, since sometimes there's no verbal communication happening at all.

Expanding the gray area is the fact that intimacy no longer follows a timeline. "Hooking up" can mean anything from kissing to sex, and can occur between strangers, friends, and long-term partners. Teens are also hit with the idea of "crush culture," a term implying that everyone should be thinking about romance all the time. However, teens and young adults today are busier and more stressed than we've ever been, so the truth is, most of the time we can't be bothered to date. A lot of us juggle jobs, school projects, homework, volunteering, athletics, and our friendships with one another. Keeping up with these responsibilities doesn't leave many hours in the day to search for our true loves and that's OK.

It takes high levels of emotional intelligence to navigate this complex experience, and I'd want my parents to offer me guidance while still giving me room to explore. I also want them to support me if I am not ready to embark on my romantic journey just yet.

The Bottom Line

Yes, dating has changed, but romance isn't dead. It might live a little too much on our phones for a parent's liking, but it shouldn't and doesn't entirely reside there. Romance and dating have always been about the fundamental connection between two people—and even though that connection now exists across several different platforms and mediums, that connection still thrives.

Elle Grant is a 19-year-old writer at Johns Hopkins University where she studies history, creative writing, and French. She hopes to pursue a career in publishing or media after graduation.

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