How Technology is Changing Dating and Romance for Tweens and Teens

Romance, Love, and Crushes in the Digital Age

Oh to be a teenager in love. What does teen dating look like in the digital age?  Kids are still falling in love, getting crushes, getting mad, getting even, etc.  Some kids are meeting online, but lots are meeting the old-fashioned way, at school, through friends, etc. If your kid is dating in middle school, there is a good chance that by dating they mean texting.

On one hand, the world of constant social media updates and texting can add pressure to a budding relationship, but some teens say it can also be helpful. For example, kids have shared with me that they can gain about a potential partner by looking at their old posts.

In conversations, waiting for someone to text you back if you flirting is stressful and exciting! Want to understand a little bit of what this feels like and looks like? Watch Heartstopper on Netflix. Two high school boys go from seatmates to friends, to more.

The agony and ecstasy of their early, tentative texts followed by the fun and flurry of their more assured texts when they become a couple will offer insight to any grownup who wishes to empathize with teens. 

Are you feeling worried about complications of technology in teens’ dating life, the reports from teens are mixed. On one hand, the world of constant social media updates and texting can add pressure to a budding relationship, but some teens say it can also be helpful.  Some kids have shared with me that they can gain about a potential partner by looking at their old posts.

Other teens shared that looking too far back on someone’s timeline “like a picture before puberty said one 15-year-old” shared with me, is just “creepy.”

LGBTQ+ teens may find a more supportive environment online depending on where they go to school.
I loved reading about how some kids take advantage of specific “Affordances” within apps like Instagram’s “close friends” feature to open up in safer ways among more trusted peers.

When to worry? If you learn that your young person is using Tinder, Grindr, and other dating/”hookup” apps, these are supposed to be only used by those eighteen or older and should be completely off-limits to minors.

What does “meeting online” look like?  Lynea, a mother of a 9th grader shared with me that her son started a “traditional” dating relationship with a girl he met via Discord, where they were chatting about Anime together.  She was concerned for his safety and did take steps to be sure he was meeting was a real kid, a peer, etc. before supporting the relationship.

Initially, she drove her son to a bookstore café to meet the girl in person for the first time while she waited outside. Since then, this Lynea has met her son’s girlfriend and her parents. She has dropped him off at her basketball games and her school play.  While the kids live 20 minutes apart in different suburbs–and might not have otherwise met–their relationship itself does not seem different to his mother than if they had met at a swim meet or debate tournament.

How Dating Has Changed

Once teens or tweens are involved romantically, their expectations are surely affected by the availability of constant connection. This is directly in parallel with the changes in expectations in our own adult relationships. For example, my husband and I were dating before we had cell phones, and our expectations for being in contact (while far lower than these teenagers!), are still more frequent than they were before we had these devices with us at all times. Fully 85% of young people surveyed, expected to hear from their partner at least once a day. 11% expected to hear from their partners once an hour!

Teens are just getting used to all 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 were confined to lunch and the occasional movie, today every couple can keep in never-ending contact via the phone in their pocket. When talking to your child, remind her that even though 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 or crush is (age-old preoccupations) have moved more into the digital realm. In one PEW study, 50% of teens reported that they used social media platforms to flirt or express romantic intentions.  While they still may prefer to meet at school or through friends, social media is often times where they feel comfortable discussing their feelings.

Breaking Up: The Worst Part of Dating

On the other end of the “feelings” spectrum, kids are negotiating both breaking up relationships and fending off unwanted attention in both the traditional ways (face-to-face, phone) and the digital realm (social media, texting, email). The same PEW study reports that 25% of all teens have unfriended or blocked someone on social media because that person was flirting in a way that made them uncomfortable Perhaps, not surprisingly, Teen girls are more likely to receive uncomfortable flirting online with 35% reporting they’ve had to unfriend or block someone, more than twice as many as the 16% of boys who have had to do the same. I really like these dating do’s and don’ts to share with kids from Child Mind.

What about Sexting? 

First of all, sending sexy pics isn’t a safe flirting technique, but parents should know that some teens do this to assess interest (or try to encourage interest.)  Teens in a committed romantic relationship might exchange revealing pictures without adults ever learning about it. While it may not feel comfortable for us parents,  and it is against the law in many places, the *emotional* risk of consensual sexting that stays private is the same as any for another mutually vulnerable sexual act.

As long as it is truly consensual and private.

When things are pressured or get circulated–that’s an entirely different matter. That can be very harmful emotionally. Kids need to learn ALL about consent, including never pressuring someone for a photo or video.

Meanwhile, how should you advise if your teen do if they get an unsolicited nude–a topless or genital pic or a “sexy” photo they haven’t asked for. How can you even bring up this super-awkward topic and other related territory?

You can find tips and scripts in my free SOS Guides for ways to discuss sexting with your teenager–whether or not they are dating yet.

How to Talk to Your Kid About Dating Challenges

Ask your kid how other kids in their school and community ask other people out or to become involved. What are the local customs? If you are concerned about harassment, one way to open the door to conversations about these kinds of experiences is to ask your child if she or her friends has ever had to block someone for coming on too strong–or being too persistent. Make sure she knows that this behavior is unacceptable and that she doesn’t have to put up with it. If the behavior doesn’t stop by un-friending or blocking the perpetrator, contacting the school–or the authorities–may be necessary.

Everything we know about dating for young people in the digital age should remind us to have empathy for kids…learning to deal with romantic feelings towards others is as awkward, terrifying, and exhilarating as it ever was!


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