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Teens Are Looking for Love in Online Places

How to help teens have safe and healthy online relationships.

Key points

  • Research shows that 1 in 3 young people will be in an abusive or unhealthy relationship before they are adults.
  • During the pandemic, many young people have been using teen "dating" apps to forge and maintain their first romantic relationships.
  • According to the CDC, teens today are having significantly less sex than those in previous generations.
Love Online
Source: Tumisu/Pixabay

February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, an annual campaign focused on advocacy and education to stop dating abuse before it starts. Research shows that 1 in 3 young people will be in an abusive or unhealthy relationship before they are adults. With many teen relationships developing online during this interminable pandemic, it is more challenging than ever for parents to guide teens through a first crush or breakup, or to even have any idea if their relationships are unhealthy or not. This is especially true when love may be blossoming in a digital space parents have never even heard of.

Love has moved online

The pandemic has taken away a lot from teens, including real-life opportunities to meet and form peer relationships at school, social functions, sports practice, and other in-person events that have been sporadic at best. What the pandemic hasn’t taken away, however, is the very normal teenage need to make and form relationships, especially romantic ones. According to Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center:

During adolescence, teens begin to build an identity and increasingly feel a need for intimacy and romantic love. These are normal, developmental tasks that rely on social involvement and peer interaction. The social isolation from COVID can hamper developmental progress. Social media and online dating provide a critical way of creating and learning to maintain healthy social relationships.

Digital tools, and even so-called “dating” or “hook-up” apps, make it easy for young people to start and maintain relationships and dating apps in general, such as adult favorites like Tinder, Hinge, and Bumble, have all reported an increase in use over the past 18 months. Believe it or not, there are apps designed specifically for those 13-18 years of age who are looking for relationships.

Dating apps for users under 18?

Yep, you read that right. Here are just a few examples:

  • MyLOL is the self-proclaimed “#1 teen network in the world.” Its website encourages teens to “meet thousands of teenagers like you.” Users must be 13 to register, but Common Sense Media suggests MyLOL should only be used by those 18 years of age and up because “[u]sers often post provocative, half-naked pictures of themselves and engage in flirty or even sexually explicit conversation.”
  • Yubo (formerly “Yellow”) describes itself as a place “where anyone can belong, feel safe, and hang out.” Its terms say users must be at least 13, but like most such apps it is ridiculously easy for anyone to input a random birthdate. Yubo has the feel of an adult dating app, as users create profiles and swipe left to pass or right to “like” one another. Common Sense Media rates Yubo 17+.
  • Skout-Meet New People announces on its landing page that users can “Date Instantly, Live.” This one is often referred to as a “flirting” app for meeting and chatting with new people. Skout rates itself for those 17+, but it’s easy enough for younger teens to simply fudge their age. Once users turn 18, they're automatically moved into groups with adults. Like other apps, posts can include suggestive images and profanity.

Although there are plenty more apps specifically designed to meet new people, like those described above, any online space where kids “hang out”—from Snapchat to Discord, group texts to Fortnite—can essentially be considered a “dating” platform. This doesn’t mean parents need to know the intimate workings of every app and service out there (an impossible task). Much more helpful to your teens, and doable for you, is to simply ask them where they are hanging out, find out who they are meeting, and be curious, not judgmental. The good news is that, according to the CDC, teens today are having significantly less sex than those in previous generations. With limited in-person social opportunities, they are not drinking and driving as much either.

Talk to your teens about their online relationships

The bottom line: Whether your teens are having romantic relationships online or off, it is important for them to know how to keep those relationships safe and healthy. Help them set boundaries in relationships with friends and romantic partners with some simple guidelines. Tell them:

  • It is OK to turn your devices off now and then. You don’t have to be available 24/7.
  • Just say no to inappropriate requests or anything that makes you feel uncomfortable (like an ask for “nudes,” for example).
  • You don’t have to respond immediately, or even ever, to every text and post.
  • Keep your logins and passwords to yourself.
  • You should feel respected in all your relationships, online or off.

As we mark both Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month and Valentine's Day, make some time to show your teens some love by talking about how to keep their love matches safe and healthy, online and off.

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