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Teenage Dating in the Digital Age

Here's what parents can do about cuffing, fading, zombieing, and more.

Source: Schiereck/Pexels

Teenage dating in 2020 is virtually unrecognizable for many parents. Remember when, as a teenager, you would see someone cute across the lunchroom or in one of your classes, and you'd wait for days, weeks, or months to perhaps "run" into them so you could say, "Hi." In the meantime, you would ask your friends around campus to see if you could get information about your crush, perhaps checking the school yearbook or waiting around the lunch quad where they might walk by.

Nowadays, our teenagers don't need to rely on such old-school methods. For parents of Generation Z-ers, we need to be transported into the modern teen world of cuffing, haunting, zombieing, slow fading, benching (aka breadcrumbing), curving, cookie-jarring, submarining, GNOC, Instagram (aka Insta), and Tiktok. Don't know what these terms mean? Have no fear — you will learn all about them in this article; however, don't get too confident, there are constantly new terms our teens are creating at a seemingly dizzying speed.

So, what do we know about teen dating in the digital age of 2020?

First, initially meeting a potential mate IRL (in real life) is all but practically nonexistent. Even if your teen sees someone interesting at school, they do not need to wait to catch a glimpse of their love interest the next day at school (that would feel like forever). Everything has moved online with the ever pervasive social media in teens' lives. As of the publication date of this article, Insta and Tiktok are the two major apps used by Gen Z-ers for dating (but rest assured, by the time you finish reading this article, our teens have likely added new apps- we can't keep up!).

With social media accounts at their fingertips, which are attached to the ubiquitous smartphone, our teens no longer need to talk to other teens to get information about their romantic crush. They can spend hours and hours perusing social media pages looking at photos and posts. This can turn into social media stalking, wherein the teen is searching multiple social media apps to locate their love interest's accounts and then following them on those apps.

Second, when teens are ready to let their romantic crush know they're potentially interested, they do so by deepliking them. This means they are scrolling through old social media posts/photos (going back months or years) and then liking those old posts. In doing so, they are indirectly communicating to their intended crush that they are interested in them. Once that interest reaches a critical threshold, the teen may opt to slide into their crush's DM's. This simply means that your teen is sending a direct message (typically unexpected) to their love interest's private messaging app.

Thirdly, if the potential mate is interested, then both parties begin talking, in that they are (casually) learning about each other via texting. Sounds simple? In today's modern age of teen dating, this is often complicated by the sheer volume of DM slides occurring nearly all of the time between teens.

Because of the instantaneous nature of social media communication, many teens talk to multiple love interests concurrently. Teens can often experience FOMO (fear of missing out), wherein they constantly wonder if they are missing out on someone better. FOMO can lead to perpetual beta testing, in which the teen continually keeps others on a pending list — instead of committing to one person and dating IRL.

Source: kxithvisuals/Pexels

Fourth, what happens when both teens are able to move past FOMO and decide to go beyond beta testing? They will inevitably reach the DTR moment, when they discuss how they are defining the relationship. This usually relates to whether they are ready to announce on social media that they are dating. They may formalize their couplehood by changing their relationship status on social media or changing their profile picture to a couple's selfie.

Fifth, does this mean they're now dating IRL? Not necessarily! Many teen couples experience their romantic relationship entirely online. They may ask each other to GNOC (get naked on camera), and send each other nude photos. They may engage in sexting, where they mimic sex via typing sexually-oriented words on their screens or sending sexually explicit photos.

Some teen couples do move beyond social media and have face-to-face interactions. When this happens, congratulations! Your teen is finally (after all the above online steps) able to interact with their love interest in-person. In this real-world arena, they are able to learn how to communicate in person (with all of the important, nonverbal cues and body language), learn how to make physical bids for connection, and even more importantly- learn how to experience difficult emotions (e.g., jealousy, insecurity) in the physical presence of each other.

Being able to communicate difficult emotions and topics face-to-face is paramount to being able to move beyond a superficial online relationship. After all, written words (no matter how warmly they're intended) cannot replace in-person communication. Feelings of love, warmth, and emotional connectedness require oxytocin (the love or cuddle hormone), which is released when people hold hands, hug, cuddle, or kiss.

Additionally, every relationship — if they last long enough — will inevitably involve difficult conversations or require conflict resolution. This is a great opportunity for your teen to learn effective relational skills for romantic conflicts. Research shows that holding hands with a loved one can help decrease emotional pain during difficult conversations. When teens try to resolve relational conflict via texting/messaging only, they also encounter problems unique to this medium, such as frequent misunderstandings of each other's intent/meaning due to lack of having relevant in-person social cues (e.g., body language, facial expression, tone of voice). Texting can make it easier for an angered or frustrated teen to say harsh words that they don't really mean — things that they wouldn't actually say if face-to-face with their love interest. If being in-person is not possible for conflict resolution, then using a live video app is a better alternative to texting-only.

Source: Pixabay

Sixth, as is the usual case with the overwhelming majority of teen relationships, all good things come to end. Teenage dating is essentially experimenting and learning about oneself and- inherent in this trial-and-error approach- your teen will undoubtedly experience the end of a romantic relationship. How does this happen with teens in 2020?

Some may engage in benching (aka breadcrumbing), wherein the teen stops meeting their partner in real life and instead, communicate primarily through social media or texting. This is called benching because the teen is essentially keeping the other on a "bench" while checking out alternative potential romantic interests. It's the equivalent of keeping them in the proverbial waiting room. This is also when teens get LOR (left on read), which is the heart-crushing moment when the teen's message is read but there is no reply. Getting LOR leaves the teen second-guessing what happened. Is their love interest mad at them? Or no longer interested in them and have moved onto a new love interest? Or is this the lover's way of regaining emotional control of the conversation/relationship?

When the teen is LOR, they have no choice but to wait until there is a response in order to know what happened or what the person is feeling. If they end up being ghosted (love interest completely disappears), the teen may never learn the truth. Curving is similar in that the love interest slowly drops off communication while periodically returning to DM and apologizing or making excuses for the long delays in communication (e.g., "I'm sorry, I've been SO busy with schoolwork"). They appear somewhat interested but eventually disappear. An equally dismal outcome is when the teen is cookie-jarred. This happens when DTR hasn't occurred yet, and the teen discovers that their love interest has been seeing someone else, while keeping them around just in case the other person doesn't work out.

Seventh — no, not seventh heaven — at this juncture in the teen's modern world of dating, they may encounter zombies. This is not your mother's zombie a la The Walking Dead. When a teen gets zombied (also known as haunted), their love interest (who had ghosted or slow faded on them) all of a sudden reappears in their social media or messaging app. Alas, this is not real interest, as the term zombie implies —they may send a message or like a post — but it is usually a half-hearted effort and often results in false hope for your teen.

A more severe version of curving is when your teen gets submarined. Submarining is when the individual disappears, then reappears (much like a submarine), but with the added layer of not giving any reason why they disappeared in the first place.

But alas — what if it's wintertime? Does the season of the year change anything? Why, yes- winter time is the season for cuffing. Cuffing is 'tis the season for teens wanting to establish longer-term relationships — meaning, until Valentine's Day.

Now, all this may sound disheartening. But the benefits of dating in this digital age are manifold, such as potentially being able to find a better match for oneself via improved historical information, increased communication on a day-to-day basis via texting, and — this may be of particular interest to parents — extended time before having in-person sexual activities (if the relationship makes it that far).

Monica Lind, used with permission
Source: Monica Lind, used with permission

But how can parents help their teens navigate this unfamiliar dating terrain?

  • We can never keep up with all the new terms or teen trends. The most important tool we have is to be present for them. Let your teen know that you're available to listen — in a non-judgmental way. Resist the urge to give advice. Practice your poker face so that you don't make a sour face when they inevitably tell you something that makes you want to flinch.
  • No matter how wonderful a parent you are, there are times when teens just don't want to talk to their parents. It can be helpful to have a trusted adult (e.g., aunt, uncle, parent's best friend) that is designated to be that person that your teen is willing to go to for help. This is best when agreed upon in advance.
  • Information is empowering. At developmentally age-appropriate times, be sure to give your teen relevant information about a variety of issues —consent, sex, pornography, birth control, STI's, intimacy, emotion regulation, constructive coping strategies, the role of drugs and alcohol, and more. These are not one-time conversations. Be sure to revisit as often as needed and as openly as possible. When you talk about these issues, you make these topics less taboo and destigmatize your teen's interests and experiences. They will certainly learn about these topics whether you want them to or not- and if you're not the one talking about these topics with your teen- they will inevitably learn about it from their peers or (likely unreliable) online sources.
  • Encourage your teen to live their best life in real life. Help them to learn how to move rather quickly from online communication to real-life communication. Encourage/coach/support your teen to experience face-to-face interpersonal contact. This will help them to practice real intimacy and genuine human connectedness. Relatedly, encourage your teen to focus on one relationship at a time, once they've progressed to couplehood. Perpetually staying in beta testing mode, or cookie-jarring someone, often backfires when a genuine relationship presents itself but is missed out by the teen.
  • While there are clearly benefits to communicating via social media/messaging apps, such as being able to quickly communicate across space and distance, the very real downside is that these media can be used by teens to avoid the arguably more challenging (but much more rewarding) experience of real in-person connection. Teach your teen dating etiquette, including the hard but crucial relational skills, such as how to resolve interpersonal conflict or break up with their love interest in person versus a messaging app. These are life skills that will help them in many other areas of their lives as they mature into adulthood.

For additional information and resources on how to talk to your teens about dating and sex:

American Psychological Association - Talking to Teens About Sex

American Academy of Pediatrics - Teens, Social Media, & Sex

Centers for Disease Control - How to Talk to Teens About Sex & Dating