How can vulnerable young people be protected from the risks of online dating?

As more and more young people take to social media and online apps to form romantic relationships, expert Adrienne Katz explains how this is affecting vulnerable young people and what parents can do to keep them safe.

What influences young people's online relationships?

How a young person feels about themselves – let’s call it their awareness of dignity – will affect how they act in relationships. If they have few opportunities to socialise with others their age because of disabilities, learning difficulties or responsibilities at home, they tend to look online for love and admiration more than other teens do. The drive to belong and be loved is so powerful that safety rules are forgotten.

The role of mental health

Mental health and emotions are strong drivers of all we do. For example, people with an eating disorder are more than three times as likely to share explicit images than teens without difficulties.

Isolation or feeling alone can also lead teens to look for social life online. Young carers, for instance, are twice as likely to share these images than teens with no responsibilities or additional needs. They feel ‘noticed’, and some see it as a gateway in to the teenage social and romantic life they crave.

Others look to their online life to compensate for their real-life struggles. Some teenagers simply believe sharing nude images of themselves is required in a relationship if you want to keep your partner.

Why young people ‘sext’

Sharing explicit images or ‘sexting’ can occur as a result of being pressured or blackmailed into it. Those most likely to say this happened to them are those with an eating disorder, young carers, those with autism and those in care.

Also, we know that over half the young people with hearing loss who shared an image said they were pressured or blackmailed to do it. An example is thinspiration ‘coaches’ who exert incredible pressure on young people to be thinner. As a part of this, they demand rigid control and make their target send images every day. Other influencers pressure boys to bulk up their bodies and send photos to illustrate this.

Additionally, those requesting images may claim it is a part of a relationship, saying loving things to get more images.

How are vulnerable children at risk?

Some children might struggle to understand their use of technology and potential long term consequences. If a child or young person is very compliant and trusting, they might eagerly do what their ‘partner’ wants them to do, failing to recognise if they’re being manipulated.

As a result, the child might put images of themselves online, sharing too much information. This can then lead to someone offering them ‘protection’ and belonging, which can turn to control or even exploitation.

What can parents and carers do?

The biggest way to support our teens is to love and support them in a way that allows them to openly and often discuss relationships and feelings. Obviously, parents are naturally protective, especially if their child is vulnerable offline. So, encouraging healthy relationships in teens involves a letting go that is hard for parents.

However, you can start young, helping a child develop their awareness, gain skills, consider scenarios and understand that relationships are not always what they seem.

This can set the pattern for talking things through with a trusted adult before they are in a relationship.

Conversations to have with young people

Parents and carers should talk about what a good relationship looks like in any environment, rather than worrying excessively about the online world.

Talk about what is and isn’t okay

It seems that teens think it’s a sign of trust between a couple if your partner looks through your phone without permission. Furthermore, over one third of boys believe sharing nude images in a relationship is expected. More than half of young people with a mental health difficulty shared an image ‘because I was in a relationship and wanted to share it’.

Young people who are vulnerable offline are more than twice as likely as their peers to agree to meet up with someone they met online. Those with hearing loss or learning difficulties were most likely to say afterwards that this person was not the same age as them.

So-called relationships online may be nothing of the sort. Those with hearing loss, eating disorders, mental health difficulties, care experience or who say ‘I worry about life at home’ were more than twice as likely as other teens to report that ‘someone tried to persuade me into unwanted sexual activity’.

So, it’s important to discuss what healthy relationships look like and when it’s time to get help.

Tips to promote positive relationships online

Parents and carers should stay alert when it comes to young people’s online activity. However, they should also aim to strengthen their child’s skills in the following ways.

  • Talk openly and often about relationships. Include what is okay and what is not, and explain that some people online are not who they say they are.
  • Explain that they should approach people online with caution. It’s important to recognise that, just like offline, some people are kind while others might seek to harm them.
  • Talk about the ends of relationships. Some relationships break up and it is heart breaking, but there will be more.
  • Help them understand that they are valued and love. They never have to prove this to anyone by doing things that are not okay like the ones you’ve talked about.
  • Make it clear that their body is private.
  • Use scenarios to talk about it. Explore questions like ‘What would you do if…?’ or ‘what do you think a fictitious person should do if this happens to them?’
  • Encourage talking tactics to solve problems with a trusted adult.
  • Talk about online identities and reputation. The information they put online can stick around. Future employers or friends could see that information online.
  • Always support them. Avoid shaming or blaming children and young people if a problem occurs,
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