The Teen Dating Game

What to love and when to worry
Bigstock 63328603
Bigstock photo

Today’s teens are navigating a social media-infused world where the only sure thing is change. But one thing remains constant: Teens love being in love. Their relationships are often powered by texting, Snapchat, Twitter and selfies, but they still contain all of the pleasures — and risks — of pre-internet dating. Whether or not your child has gone on a date, now is the time to start a conversation about building healthy relationships.

What is Dating?

Ask teens how many kids they know who date and they are quick to respond. “Everyone,” says Durham eighth-grader Wyatt — though he adds, “Not me.” Mason, an 11th-grader in Charlotte, says “more than half” of his friends date.

How do teens define dating? Brooke, a 10th-grader in Raleigh, says the classic definition still applies: A longer-term relationship between two people who are romantically interested in each other.

“If you’re dating someone but don’t think it’s going anywhere, that’s not dating,” Brooke says. “That’s just ‘a thing’ or a hookup.”

Brooke guesses that around 40 percent of the kids at her school date, but adds that only about 10 percent of those relationships are “more serious.”

Lindsey Copeland, a Durham psychologist who owns Copeland Psychological Services and also works as a counselor for Durham Academy’s Upper School, says she does not see evidence of “real” dating until students are in 11th or 12th grade. While middle schoolers might do some group dating on trips to the mall, or might connect with a “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” via daily texts, Copeland says “younger students are still sorting out their own identity and are usually not ready to focus on another person in any serious way.” Such relationships, she says, usually end with an abrupt text or, even more awkwardly, by third-person word of mouth (or text).

Strict definitions aside, all teen relationships are learning experiences — from middle school pairings to high school hookups to watching a friend date his or her true love. The earlier you step in to discuss these interactions with your child, the better.

Benefits and Risks

For some kids, dating can be a wonderful learning experience. At its best, dating provides teens with increased confidence, and the chance to learn how to empathize and practice navigating adult relationships.

Brooke, who has had several in-person relationships and is currently involved in a long-distance relationship with a boy she met through social media, credits her success with looking for the right qualities in a potential boyfriend.

“The most important thing is that your boyfriend is not ashamed to show you off,” she says. “That’s a real relationship — where he says, ‘I appreciate you and I care about you.’ Both sides should be proud of each other.”

Parents can use dating as a teaching tool. “Ask your child what they think is important in a relationship,” says Betsy Thompson, coordinator of Mental Health Services at Teen Health Connection in Charlotte. “If they have a girlfriend or boyfriend, ask them how their partner shows them respect. If there’s a breakup, ask them what they learned.” It’s easier to teach kids who have experience, she says, because kids don’t always learn from peers’ mistakes.

Dating, unfortunately, is not always a positive experience. Parents typically worry most about sex, but there are other issues to watch out for — like emotional and physical abuse, which parents often don’t consider until after their child experiences it. Copeland sees “too many” college students who have suffered from relationship violence. She says the teen years provide the best time to be open with your child — when family members and adults are nearby and able to identify warning signs.

Self-confidence can provide excellent protection against abuse, says Reana Johnson, a UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore and president of the university’s chapter of “Queen in You,” a mentoring program for middle school girls that helps them discover who they are instead of seeing themselves through the eyes of potential boyfriends. She advises teens not to be in a rush to start a relationship.

“You’re your own person before and after this other person, and you need to take care of yourself before you can take care of other people,” she says.

Talk to your child about what it means to be treated well, and about the signs of a potentially harmful situation. If a teen is not being treated appropriately, he or she needs to know what steps to take in order to stay safe.

“It’s important to recognize when boundaries are being crossed. They especially need help learning to communicate when their needs conflict with their partner’s,” Copeland says. She suggests coaching your child in such a way that he or she knows what to say when a dating partner wants something he or she is not comfortable offering.

Teens and Sex

While dating can lead to sex for some teens, it does not for others. Being in a committed relationship can be safer than being a part of a crowd prone to hooking up. Brooke is careful to separate sex-based relationships from love-based dating. “When you’re just in ‘a thing’ with a person, that’s more about sexual attraction than a real attraction,” she says. “A lot of girls are looking for long-term relationships, while guys just want to mess around.”

Contrary to popular belief, not all boys enter relationships just for sex. Some are looking for a deeper connection. Mason says he can be more relaxed and honest with his girlfriend than he can with his guy friends.

“With my baseball friends, it’s all about competing and playing jokes,” he says. “With my girlfriend, it’s sometimes easier because we can just sort of be nice to each other.”

Whether your teen is in a committed relationship or hanging out with a larger social group, the experts we spoke to advise making your values and preferences on sex clear before it becomes an issue. Educate your child about the dangers of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases — and how to prevent them. If you do not teach your child, he or she will learn from sources you may not agree with or trust. Remind your teen (often) that alcohol and drugs lower a person’s inhibitions to the point where he or she may not have control over his or her decisions. The more your teen hears this, the more likely he or she is to think before acting.

What About Social Media?

Social media apps have become an integral part of teen culture. “Teens use social media to communicate and connect with romantic partners in ways that may be both healthy and normative, as well as in ways that may be more problematic,” says Jacqueline Nesi, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at UNC-Chapel Hill and lead author of a study on social media’s effect on teens’ long-term relationship skills.

Her research suggests that teens may use text messaging for riskier behaviors like “sexting,” but are also to have necessary conversations about things like sexual health decisions with partners. For some kids, the chance to sexually express themselves online might lead to less sex and less physical contact, whereas other kids might be more curious about the actual act of sex after seeing or reading something about it online.

“For some kids, it is a slippery slope,” Thompson says. “For others, seeing nude pictures and sex online may desensitize them to risky behavior.”

Social media usage has changed relationship norms. Copeland hears from a lot of teens who are frustrated by their dating peers’ online showboating.

“Some teens go out of their way to post how much they love each other and how happy they are — lots of heart emojis, happy couple photos and ‘Look, I’ve got a boyfriend,’” she says. “There’s definitely a social leverage component to some of these social media-style PDAs.” Copeland suggests talking with teens about these public displays of affection, and asking them what role online grandstanding might play in nurturing or harming a relationship.

Brooke believes girls’ reputations are more at stake online than boys’. Male and female teens often take a negative view of girls who are involved in hookups or who share nude photos. “Guys — or even other girls — will call them sluts or hoes,” Brooke says. “That can really hurt a girl’s self-esteem, especially when it gets out there on social media. My friends and I would never do nudes, but it’s pretty unfair. Guys can do whatever they want and don’t get any negative feedback.”

Mason agrees. “Girls get it pretty harsh online,” he says. “My friends try to stay out of all that.”

Warn your teen about the consequences of posting compromising photos — even in the see-it-and-it’s-gone world of Snapchat. It’s easy to take a screenshot of any image and post it for a broader audience.

Strategies for Starting a Conversation

The most natural way to teach your child about healthy partnerships is to model mutually respectful relationships at home. Single parents can teach their children by drawing on what they have learned from good and bad experiences.

Organizations like “Queen in You” can offer resources for teens who are shy and might respond more comfortably to mentors closer in age. You might also consider watching a TV show or movie together to jumpstart a conversation about relationships. Ask your child what he or she thought of a character’s actions, and whether there were alternative avenues he or she could have pursued.

Still don’t know where to start? Copeland recommends the website as a resource for learning about how to maintain healthy teen relationships.

Experts say keeping the lines of communication open with your child is key.

“Research shows that communicating with kids — even more so than monitoring their online activity — is effective in promoting healthy social media use,” Nesi says.

Know what social media platforms they are using and who they connect with, and make sure they understand how to safely present themselves online.

Preventing Digital Relationship Abuse

The constant availability of social media can lead to possessive and predatory behavior. Teens should be aware that it is not normal for a partner to want to know where they are all the time, or for a partner to demand instant responses to messages.

Reana Johnson, a UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore and president of the university’s chapter of “Queen in You,” a mentoring program for middle school girls, suggests using social media to fight social media. The “mute” option is her favorite feature on Twitter.

“It can be great to just block someone out sometimes, especially if you’re going through a breakup,” she says. “You can always un-mute them later on.”

If muting one person is not enough, Johnson encourages teens to “mute” social media altogether. “On social media, the pressures are constant,” Johnson says. “You have to realize there are other things to do with your time. Paint. Keep a journal. Go outside. Otherwise, you’ll get trapped in this virtual reality. Just remember it is not real life.”

Teen Texting Acronyms and Phrases

Keeping up with your teen’s social life means understanding his or her language. Here’s a cheat sheet for some of the more popular terms or phrases you might discover — and some you hope you won’t — when you scroll through one of your teen’s text threads.

Bae: Baby or sweetie

Catfishing: Fabricating an online persona in order to lure a potential partner

Ghosting: Cutting off all communication as a means to end a relationship

IRL: “In real life” — a relationship that moves from online to face-to-face

Netflix and chill: Code for going to each other’s house in order to make out

Swerve: To avoid

Talking: Casual dating

A Thing: Not quite dating, but almost

Thirsty: Need lots of attention (sometimes sexual); desperate

GNOC: “Get naked on camera”

Smash: To have casual sex

NIFOC: “Naked in front of computer”

CU46: “See you for sex”


Source: Urban Dictionary, a crowd-sourced online dictionary of slang words and phrases

Caitlin Wheeler is a freelance writer in Durham.

* Names of teens were changed for privacy.