Even before the pandemic, much of a teenager’s social life played out online. Socializing with friends (and frenemies) didn’t stop when the final bell of the school day rang—it carried over to Snapchat, TikTok, or Instagram throughout the evening, so it’s not surprising that the reliance on social media only grew during the pandemic when everything, including school itself, went virtual. One result may be that our teens are dating online in higher rates than before.
The benefits of online dating for teenagers
Our first reaction when we think about teens dating online may be something along the lines of, “Dear god, no.” We’ve got enough to worry about with keeping our kids safe online from predators, cyber bullies, and pornography that we may yearn for the days when teenagers spotted a crush across the lunchroom. But there can be some benefits for teenagers to strike up a relationship online, says Dr. Janine Domingues, a clinical psychologist at Child Mind Institute—particularly during a pandemic.
“Especially this year, they haven’t really had a ton of opportunities where you might normally meet somebody more naturally, like at a party or even in class,” she says. “They’ve had to utilize apps in order to sort of just talk to one another.”
But for teenagers who struggle with anxiety, in particular, online dating may be the easiest and less stressful way of trying to make a connection.
“Sometimes it provides a level of comfort to be able to meet somebody online, as opposed to face to face in the beginning,” Domingues says. “I think it provides some level of putting yourself out there where it might otherwise be hard for some teens and young adults to do so in a more open, social one-on one-setting.”
The pitfalls of online dating for teens
The main concerns with teenagers dating online is, of course, their safety. There are plenty of adult predators out there looking to groom an unsuspecting, trusting teenager into a sexual relationship (or steal their identity). Teenagers need to be aware of this and approach any new online relationship cautiously, particularly if they’re using a dating service more typically used by adults. But what can also be problematic is the way communicating behind a screen can make us more bold in our words and actions.
“There feels like there’s this level of anonymity that can make you accidentally say things you wouldn’t otherwise say face-to-face,” Domingues says. “That’s one thing that I would caution a little bit about, that it sometimes can feel a little safer to say things online or to put yourself out there in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise do if you were in person.”
That also goes for sharing private photos and sensitive information, such as where they live or passwords. Frequent reminders that once they send out sensitive pictures or information, they can’t take it back, are important for all teenagers who use social media, whether they’re dating or not.
One other thing to be aware of, especially now that the world is opening back up, is that an online relationship might cause a teenager to become more isolated from in-person relationships and activities. As Verywell Family points out:
An online romance may limit a teen’s in-person social interaction. A teen with a boyfriend in another state may decide to forgo social events, like a dance or a party because she wants to stay home to chat with her boyfriend online. This can have serious ramifications for a teen’s social life.
So if you notice your teenager is starting to withdraw from their “in real life” friends, it may be time to talk with them about how to achieve a better balance in their social interactions.
How to help teens set online dating boundaries
It’s not realistic to tell a teenager that they can’t socialize online; they may even make a romantic connection over social media without even intending to dive into the world of online dating. But you can help them approach these interactions in ways that will ultimately result in them being safer and feeling more comfortable.
Talk to them about what types of boundaries and ground rules make sense for online friendships and romantic relationships. You can approach it less like you’re laying down the law (they can probably get around most rules you put in place anyway) and more like a collaboration of deciding together what safeguards are important.
Discuss a game plan for meeting someone in person that they initially met online—they’ll tell you first, and the meeting happens in a public place with you close by, for example. This video from the Internet Matters organization has some additional helpful advice for talking with teens about online relationships and relationships in general:
And finally, Domingues also suggests talking to your teen about how they present themselves online, particularly as it relates to photos and filters. Presenting your true self, versus some ideal version of yourself, is important in helping them feel more comfortable about eventually transitioning the relationship from online to in person.