Color & Control:

Modern dating:

8 ways to help teens navigate

By Children and Screens

While technology has made it easier for young people to meet new people, communicate with romantic partners and carry on long-distance relationships, it’s also created a host of new challenges and risks related to self-esteem, privacy, and potential harassment and abuse.

To prepare teens in safe and healthy ways, it’s essential to engage in early and open conversations about boundaries, respect and consent. In addition, it’s important for parents to showcase what healthy relationships—romantic or otherwise—look like at home, because online behaviour is inevitably shaped by offline experiences.

Here we’ve invited some experts to weigh in to help maintain and promote safe and healthy relationships in the digital world:

1. Talk, don’t police
As teens learn to self-regulate their online lives, as well as develop the tools they need to succeed in interpersonal relationships, it is neither helpful nor sustainable for parents to police every element of teens’ online lives. “Today’s youth don’t distinguish between their online and offline lives,” says psychologist, Dr. Jeff Temple. “Modeling healthy relationships at home, having regular, ongoing conversations about dating, relationships and sex, and encouraging kids to trust their instincts will teach them to make good decisions and develop healthy relationships in both the online and offline worlds.”

2. Make boundaries and stick to them
Navigating relationships can be difficult for teens still learning what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. “Being asked to send a nude picture of yourself might seem like a compliment the first time, but if you decline and the person keeps asking, that’s a form of harassment,” says Dr. Megan Maas. “Additionally, if someone is texting you dozens of times throughout the day and asking where you are and what you’re doing, that’s a form of stalking.” Parents can support their teens in setting boundaries by discussing what they are comfortable with and can set the stage by encouraging them to practice bodily autonomy and consent with their children from a young age.

3. Practice what you preach
Watching parents both online and off teaches kids to do the same. “The way parents talk to others on their cell phone or respond to social media posts is learned by children,” says Dr. Sarah Taylor. “Parent-child conversations should start early on topics like ‘using kind words’ and ‘you decide what happens to your body.’”

Dr. Taylor suggests talking when unkind messages are shared around them, including on TV or social media. Ask, “How do you think those words made that boy feel?” Or, “How do you think you would feel if someone asked you to send a picture of yourself like the girl in that movie?” Be calm and interested suggests Dr. Taylor. “Laying the foundation early for judgment-free conversations fosters open dialogue and can empower children.”

4. Get smart
“While not all relationships start online, most involve the use of technology (e.g., text messaging, social media, etc.) to communicate, flirt, and show interest in partners,” says Dr. Alison Marganski. “It’s important to note that dating abuse includes not only in-person acts of physical, sexual and/or psychological violence, but also technology-facilitated harms (e.g. online harassment, cyberstalking, ‘revenge pornography’ and other forms of image-based abuse).”

Dr. Marganski notes, “It’s essential for parents to have conversations with their kids about respect, boundaries, privacy and consent, and more.” It’s also important to teach others to be active bystanders so that they may effectively intervene to confront problematic behavior and provide support. 

5. Get involved, but don’t spy
“Join the social networks your children use and become “friends” with them and ask to see your teen’s profiles and the profiles of people that they’re interested in,” says Dr. Sarah Flicker, Professor, Faculty of Urban and Environmental Change at York University. “Explore them together and learn about what your teen finds attractive. Showing interest in your teen’s romantic life at the front-end will make it easier for them to confide in you if/when they run into trouble.” In addition, Dr. Flicker reminds parents that it’s important to acknowledge the intense emotions that go along with adolescence and make sure that your teen feels seen and heard when they’re upset.

6. Reflect before you share
While young people may feel comfortable sharing images or posting personal information, it’s important for them to remember that anything they post may someday become public. “Parents should have an open conversation with their children about their ‘digital billboard’ and caution them that anything they say or do online—even with their boyfriends or girlfriends—can resurface in the future,” says Dr. Michelle Drouin,  author of, How to Survive an Intimacy Famine. “These conversations can help kids create healthy habits.”

7. Shift the narrative
It’s important for young people to understand that if they don’t get swipes or have success with online dating, so much of it has to do with the algorithms of these dating apps. “Social rejection hurts and is associated with a variety of negative outcomes, including feelings of sadness and anger,” says Ariella Lenton-Brym from Ryerson University. “Accordingly, teenagers who use online dating programs may need to be equipped to cope with social rejection and its consequences.” Lenton-Brym suggests helping teens learn to notice patterns of negative thinking (e.g., “No one will ever want to date me”) and challenge those thoughts with evidence from their real life (e.g., “Many people have expressed interest in getting to know me; this individual’s actions do not represent what is typical in my life”).

8. Prepare ahead
Meeting new people online is often exciting, especially when you really like them, but even if you’re well-matched, it’s not unusual to feel shy and awkward when you actually meet in person. “This can be a little more pronounced during a pandemic, when there are new rules of behavior,” says Dr. Elizabeth Englander, Bridgewater State University. “To help overcome that shyness, think in advance about what you’re going to do (elbow-bump? wave?) and what you can talk about (school? your job?). Don’t hesitate to ask the person what type of greeting makes them comfortable, too.”

Dating is a rite of passage, and it is imperative that families engage in continued age-appropriate conversations about dating, dating apps, sexting, sex, self-esteem, and relationships, highlighting their family’s values and safety information. 

Children and Screens works to understand and address compelling questions regarding media’s impact on child development through interdisciplinary dialogue, public information, and research.

Institute of Digital Media and Child Development is a 501C(3) non-profit organization founded by Dr. Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra, who has spent her career in public service ranging from non-profit development, medicine and philanthropy devoted to children and adolescents.

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