Over the last three years it has become abundantly clear how integral social media can be for teens and their personal lives. With the shift to online courses, cancellation of proms and graduations, the world is just starting to get back to in person contact and that goes for our teens as well. Despite the return to an in-person world, the serious pursuit, creation, and maintenance of online relationships is more than likely here to stay.
Older generations are often critiquing Generation Z about their lack of communication skills and in person ability to communicate, while teens are literally talking to and interacting with possibly hundreds if not thousands of people daily. Tweets, TikToks, Instagram posts, Facebook, and snapchat messages are just a smattering of how teens are engaging with others. This also means that they are possibly living their love lives publicly and online. This means that as parents we have to prepare for what technological romance can have in store for those using the Interwebs to fill social connections.
Here are a few ways we can be sex positive parents while teens are dating and connecting online:
Create and maintain online boundaries and cybersecurity practices
This means you and your teen(s) explore what internet safety is for your family. This might include spot checks, limiting wifi interaction after bedtime, and ensuring that teens know what information needs to be kept private for the family’s and their own safety. Safety for teens in online relationships includes vetting the other teen to ensure they are indeed a teenager, catfishing and grooming still happen in online relationships.
Safety also includes ensuring that teens understand how to share pictures, videos, and personal information. In our digital age, sharing pictures is easy and teens (especially those in deep like) are excited to share parts of themselves with one another. This means that teens can (and probably will) start sexting — and exchanging sexually explicit messages and pictures — with one another looking for connection, especially when they are not able to meet regularly in person. Teen intimacy is often demonized and scrutinized versus nurtured and openly discussed or explored. It is not different with online connections, where possession of any sexually explicit images of minor can bring about charges of child pornography and be punishable by law.
To help reduce the potential harm, sex positive parents can encourage teens in an online relationship to flirt and engage without using overt sexual pictures of themselves, suggest use of fantasy, and support the teens meeting in-person where they can safely be alone for an agreed amount of time. These suggestions help create safety boundaries for teens in digital romantic relationships, while helping them grow through an integral developmental stage.
Talk about how to deal with rejection on- and off-line
A harder part of online dating for teens is also understanding that if and when the romance ends, rejection takes place, and unfortunately it can also be very public.
Rejection just plain sucks. Even adults have a hard time with being rejected by romantic partners and often must seek out coping tools to handle the feeling of being unwanted. Add, instead being a broken-hearted teen, on the internet, where rejection feels public and exposed to the world. A change in a relationship status, seeing pictures of each other with new people, other people seeing pictures of a partner with new people, or just plain announcements about a breakup are all very real and likely things that expose relationship endings. The embarrassment, shame, unwanted-ness, anger, sadness, grief, and a variety of other feelings can be inescapable and overwhelming. In these moments parents might need to offer more grace than usual along with their regular comforting and compassion. One thing parents can do is start to discuss rejection early on with their children.
One of my favorite sayings is that rejection isn’t actually a reflection on a person’s value, instead it’s another person’s way of taking care of themselves. This means that when someone says “no” to you, whatever the ‘no’ may be, they know that they are not the best fit for you in whatever capacity. For example, if you ask someone out and they say “no thanks,” they know that there is little chance for them to meet your expectations or desires. So, it saves a lot of time and emotional energy.
Although that rejection is not typically deeply personal, this can be hard for anyone to learn. It is especially difficult for teens who are going through developmental stages based on exploring who they are in group settings versus who they are when independent. Rejection after an intimate relationship, even when solely online, can feel like judgment about a person’s worth, when instead, it truly is a person deciding what is best for them and their own emotional, social, and intimate boundaries. Working with teens who are online and facing rejection on larger scales than we did as youth, teaching them this idea about rejection can be clutch in helping them process grief productively so that they do not internalize feelings of worthlessness and shame. Instead, ideally, they’ll see the rejection as a way another person puts up a boundary and works to understand and ultimately respect that choice — after grieving the loss and coping with the heartache.
So, while the world is opening, remember online relationships are still growing, budding, and ending. These online romances are important and need to have some safety parameters that may not be regularly thought about when teens date in real life. And there may need to be some discussion around what rejection actually is and how it can feel, especially if it takes place in a public, online forum.