As online dating has become the new normal for adults, we ask our experts to shed a light on how this phenomenon is affecting teens and what parents can do to keep them safe.
How do I know if my teen is ready for an online relationship or online dating?
If your teen is expressing an interest in any type of romantic or physical relationship it is highly likely they are already engaged in ‘online dating’. This will probably start with messaging people they already know, to social media and dating apps where they could come into contact with anyone. Relationships come with the whole packet – from joy, excitement and pleasure to heartbreak, embarrassment, inadequacy, and despair so as a parent you need to be ready.
Show an interest in all of their relationships. Talk to them about what it means to be loved and respected – whether face to face or online. Talk about their right to privacy and the importance of protecting their bodies and their hearts. Be curious, but not obstructive, watchful but not domineering. The ultimate goal is for your relationship to be strong enough that your teen lets you in, knowing you are there, that you love them and that you care.
What can I do to encourage my child to make safer choices when it comes to having romantic online relationships?
The internet, social media and even online video games are allowing children and young people to play together, to make connections, and sometimes form romantic online relationships. Parents cannot monitor every moment of their child’s online life, but parents can make sure that their children are equipped to think critically and make safer choices when online.
All online relationships, whether they are platonic or romantic, should allow children and young people to develop and learn important social skills and boundaries. Parents can prepare their children for healthy online relationships by keeping a conversation going about healthy relationships.
With younger children, parents can try role-playing, and creating scenarios about what to do if a friend is mean, asks you to do something that you are not comfortable with and so forth.
With older children, parents must create an open line of communication so that parents can talk about what a healthy relationship looks, by being respectful of your child’s individuality, opinions and beliefs.
What do I do if I find out that my child is having an online-only relationship with someone I don’t know?
Online dating, particularly for adults, has become easier with apps like Tinder, Bumble and many others out there. Swiping right is the new way to date. For teens, the trend is also becoming the new normal.
Instead of getting angry with your child for using online dating sites, take the time to talk to them and understand their reasons for dating online.
Talk to your child about basic ways to protect themselves from potential online risks including sexting and location sharing. Even though they are teenagers it is always good to remind them about the importance of protecting their identity.
More importantly, guide your child so they can protect themselves when chatting online. Teach them how to spot when someone is taking advantage of them. For example, when a person is asking for a nude selfie or asking them to switch on the webcam.
Find out how your child has met this person. Whether they met through a popular social media site, a dating app or platform it’s important to make sure your child is not hanging out at the wrong place online just like how you would do in the real world. Keep in mind that many dating sites are made for adults aged 18+.
Also, try to find out as much as you can about the person he/she is dating. Do not be judgemental but be interested. Ask the questions you would normally ask if your child is dating this person in the real world. For example, how does he/she look like, where he/she go to school, etc.
Do not be afraid to do your own homework and try to find out about the person your child is dating. You can talk to your child, so they don’t feel like you are invading their privacy.
Stay calm, remain positive and have open conversations with your child so they feel free to share things that may be affecting them. Be prepared to listen and don’t forget to talk about the risks of meeting someone they don’t know. Explain to them that for safety reasons you do not think it is a good idea to meet a stranger without informing you first.
Knowing your child is ‘Dating’ can be an interesting domain for parents to navigate and many of the conversations that I have with parents in therapy discuss what this means for the young person. Talking about relationships as a two way, co-created conversation can help young people identify the patterns of interpersonal connection. Using the metaphor of motorway traffic you can discuss the sharing of information/conversation as reciprocal and equal, two way, lawfully abiding, never hustling the traffic to go faster than is safe and also knowing when you are being railroaded by another driver to move lanes before you are ready.
You can explain your worries to your child using this metaphor of cars and driving, saying that you would want to ensure they are safe, wearing a seatbelt to prevent accidents and also that some cars are faster than others. Asking them to pay attention to their bodily signals with this person when communicating and to speak with you if they felt unsure or unsafe.
Holding this space as parents can feel unsafe for us too so don’t railroad your child and let them move into your lane for conversations.
How can vulnerable young people be protected from the risks of online dating?
Parents and carers should be talking about what a good relationship looks like in any environment, rather than worry excessively about the online world. What is OK? It seems that teens think it’s a sign of trust between a couple if your partner looks through your phone without permission and 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 about the same age as me.
So-called relationships online may be nothing of the sort. Those with hearing loss, eating disorders, mental health difficulties, care experienced 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’.
Support no shame or blame
So while parents should be alert they should also aim to strengthen their child’s skills:
See more articles and resources to help children stay safe online.