Therapist Training Series: Teen Online Dating
Tracy Markle, MA, LPC &
Dr. Brett Kennedy, Psy.D.
This is part two of our therapist training series on true digital natives. The first people in history born into an established, online, social structure. Thanks to the internet and social media, the rituals and unspoken social rules around family, friendship, and dating are changing in their wake. As therapists, we have a lot of catching up to do if we are to serve them effectively.
Table of Contents
How Prevalent is Teen Online Dating?
The 2016 study, called TECHsex, triangulated data from a quantitative national survey of 1500 Americans ages 13 to 24 with 12 qualitative focus groups of 66 youth, half of which were groups of teens under 18-years-old. This was done to “document youth information-seeking and sexual health building behaviors online” by understanding “the experiences and desires of young people as they navigate their sexual relationships through social media, online chatting, and online dating.” The average age of survey respondents was 19.7 years old and 22.4%, or 336 of them, were younger than eighteen.
Here’s what that study found.
- Young people are using the internet to begin sexual relationships with others, including dating, online flirting, and hooking up, particularly in areas where access to peers is limited
- Despite the fact that dating sites have explicit rules against minor use, youth ages 13 to 17 are using them to make friends and begin romantic relationships, albeit at a lower rate than those 18 to 24 (19.0% of underage vs 37.8% of 18- to 24-year-olds)
- 44.78% of underage teens who used online dating sites met up with someone in person
- Although use of dating websites or dating apps is somewhat high, more youth turn to social media for online dating
- Social media played an important role in vetting potential partners and beginning romantic relationships
- Digital flirting was cited as the entry point for hooking up and dating.
- Youth flirt on social media with friends of friends and can discover other people of interest by looking through the friend lists of people they already know
- Digital flirting often takes the form of comments, private messaging, heart-shaped or innuendo emojis (i.e. the eggplant or water squirt emoji), or liking someone’s photos on social media. It can also occur in more private areas online, like in direct messaging.
- Young women were most likely to send messages to flirt with someone
- Young men were likely to like someone’s photos
- Transgender-spectrum youth were most likely to follow or friend someone
- In many ways, digital flirting or adding a relationship status to your social media account has become an assumed step in the process of meeting and dating someone.
- Researchers may be neglecting to include social media as potential sources of youth hookup culture and dating.
Few studies have focused specifically on the use of online dating websites among youth younger than 18 years; instead, most studies have either focused on the victimization of minors online and the moral panics around youth sexuality and new media use or have relied on a monolithic description of youth that fails to consider developmental differences among ages in regard to sexual health research. — TECHSex: Youth Sexuality and Health Online Report (2017)
At the time of the TECHsex study in 2016, there were already signs of the digital divide emerging between true digital natives (the 13- and 14-year-old participants) and older participants. One participant over the age of 18 from Birmingham, Alabama is quoted as saying, “Um okay so, flirting has gone from a simple poke on Facebook to like a blow-up of your DM [direct messages] and Instagram. Like, it has dramatically changed, but at the same time I don’t understand it all…”
Another Birmingham participant who was under 18 had this to say, “Like with emojis I feel like sometimes people read too deep into those. Each emoji should come with a paragraph stating what my emoji means.”
Teen Dating on Social Media – Snapchat & Instagram
In the TECHsex study, the majority of focus group participants had experience with flirting on social media. The most popular social media platforms were Snapchat and Instagram. For older participants, Facebook was still relatively popular, but participants under 18 did not like Facebook. Another sign of the digital divide forming between true digital natives and older youth.
Participants explained that they usually looked through their extended social media networks (friends of friends) to find people with whom to flirt. For some, that could potentially lead to a sexual encounter. Being behind a screen allowed them to approach someone with more confidence.
Researchers noted that flirting on social media in 2016 looked very different from flirting on Facebook when it first surfaced nine years earlier. Since social media platforms had introduced so many new ways for users to connect, some of the study’s participants felt like they couldn’t keep up with the changes. Online flirting now more than ever required one to read between the lines. “The need to understand someone’s intention as flirtatious or friendly can be very consuming for youth,” the study says. “Digital flirting requires always having to navigate the rules, what things mean, and what the flirting can lead to.”
In other words, if you’re an adult and you think you’re on top of the social rituals of true digital natives, think again. Even youth a few years older had no idea what they were doing.
Teen Dating on Social Media: Discord
Teenagers look to social media to find romantic partners.
For LGBTQ+ teens and others who feel marginalized, the internet is a place to find community and love.
Discord was one of the first apps to successfully tap into the social aspect of gaming, emerging in 2015 as a communication platform for gamers, with text and voice chat capabilities far superior to what existed at the time. We’ll dive more deeply into online gaming’s role in the social rituals of true digital natives in a future article. For now, it’s important to realize that true digital natives seamlessly combine their online play with their online socializing, as humans have done in the offline world for millennia. If you’ve ever joined a sports team or running club to make friends and widen your social circle, the premise here is the same. Just digital.
Originally, Discord was created so gamers could host online rooms called servers where they and their friends could privately communicate with one another through text or audio while playing their favorite video games. Discord users could also create a public server and open it to anyone interested in playing a shared game and chatting while doing it.
In 2017, Discord added video calling and screen sharing to the platform. Over the years, it’s also added integrations with Twitch, a popular video streaming platform for gamers, music DJ’s, and vloggers. Integrations with Spotify, a popular music and spodcast streaming platform. And integrations with Xbox Live, (now called the Xbox network), the first product to successfully bring voice chat to home, gaming consoles.
As the platform grew, people began creating servers around all kinds of topics beyond gaming. In 2020, teachers began creating Discord servers to meet with students who were schooling from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Discord responded by creating educational tools for them and, most recently, by creating school hubs where students can log on to Discord with their school email address to connect with other members of their school.
In a 2019 interview with Medium tech and science news publication OneZero, Discord’s then Director of Trust and Safety Sean Li said teen dating servers fall outside of Discord’s guidelines because “they are likely to lead to activities that violate our Terms of Service.” 7
But at the time of this writing, there are 749 public Discord servers tagged “teen-dating” and 2552 servers with both “teen” and “dating” tags on them. The largest has 2922 members at the time of this writing. On it, teens post selfies to verify their gender which grants them posting privileges. Users can take part in text, audio or video chat and even share their screens.
In another teen dating server on Discord, teenagers post their Instagram and Snapchat details so users can view and contact them on those platforms.
Since there’s no way for server moderators to authentically verify the age of people on their servers, it’s crucial that adults are familiar with Discord and what teens are doing there.
Teen Perceptions of Geosocial Networking Apps i.e., “Hookup Apps”
While social media was endorsed by the majority of the TECHsex study’s participants as a tool for furthering romantic pursuits, online dating apps and websites received a much more mixed response. The report states that dating apps were perceived by participants as riskier platforms full of “catfishing” (fraudulent accounts created to prank or even assault others, nicknamed after the 2010 documentary “Catfish” and subsequent MTV reality series of the same name.) Or people looking to “hook-up” (meet for casual sex). Especially by the under 18 participants.
However, a few subgroups of teenagers who agreed that dating platforms designed for adults can be riskier, still used them.
“Focus group participants shared stories of friends being catfished and attacked, sometimes resulting in assault and rape. This was particularly true for participants who identified within sexual and gender minority communities,” the report says.
But why would teenagers put themselves at such risk? Is it just good old-fashioned, rebellion? Not quite.
Newsflash: Teens Use Hookup Apps Because Adults Use Hookup Apps
Dating from a desktop could only go so far.
As we mentioned in the first installment of this series on true digital natives, the digital social structure we have in place today couldn’t be mainstreamed until the advent of the iPhone and the App Store.
The iPhone, with its innovative touchscreen technology allowed people who knew nothing about computer programming to not only access the internet but carry it in their pockets. And the App Store gave developers a way to funnel a barrage of social media apps into people’s hands.
In the case of mobile dating apps, people were able to receive messages from would-be suitors at work, in bars, literally anywhere they went. And that’s when online dating became truly integrated into our society.
In 2013, for the first time since the end of WWII, meeting online became the most popular way for US heterosexuals to find a spouse, domestic partner, or long-term partner. Perhaps more than any other trend we’ll cover in this series, this speaks to the absolute societal paradigm shift in which today’s teenagers and children are being raised. And how abruptly that shift is happening.
Enter Grindr. The gay men’s dating app, launched in 2009, that changed the way much of the world dates.
Desktop websites like Match.com and OKCupid only showed users based on self-reported data about where they lived. Grindr took advantage of the geolocational technology in smartphones to show users in the immediate vicinity in real time, without giving away their exact location. In smaller towns that could be a mile or two, and in dense, urban areas it could be a matter of feet.
Teen Online Dating Terms to Know
Geosocial networking application -
A smartphone application that uses the location services of the phone to connect the user with others in the vicinity.
Hookup Culture- A culture accepting of casual or non-committed sexual encounters. "Hooking up" can include anything from kissing to sex.
Hookup Apps - A colloquial term for geosocial networking apps. The term evolved because of the apps' ability to facilitate casual sexual encounters. Geosocial networking apps have been blamed in the media for a so-called rise in hookup culture although research shows that hookup culture began to emerge as early as the 1920's with the advent of the automobile.16 It's likely geosocial networking apps are more responsible for moving hookup culture online than they are for facilitating it altogether.
Teen Dating on Hookup Apps: Tinder
Teen Dating on Hookup Apps: Grindr
While many queer teens are using Grindr and other hook-up apps, others are speaking out against the practice.
The podcast “Teenager Therapy,” which is hosted by five California teenagers, two of whom identify as gay, produced a series of episodes for Gay Pride Month in 2021 called #swipingsafely. In it, gay teens discuss the reasons teenagers use apps like Grindr, they share their personal experiences on hookup apps, and they seek advice from mental health professionals.
Here’s a clip of co-hosts Gael & Thomas summarizing why they think queer teenagers might use hookup apps.
How Adults Can Support and Protect Teens Dating Online
Teenagers in the US and many other countries face a dearth of resources for fact-based sex education as well as a lack of healthy opportunities to explore their budding sexuality. This problem is compounded exponentially for LGBTQ+ youth who often face discrimination and judgment even from their peers.
Realizing that teenagers are seeking love, validation, and even sex on the internet is disconcerting for many adults. It’s tempting for parents to respond with authoritarian punishments in an attempt to control the situation.
But children raised with authoritarian parenting styles are more likely to engage in escapist behaviors like screens, digital media applications, and substances. They’re also more at risk for suicide.
As therapists, we can help establish ongoing, open communication with the youth we serve about these digital spaces, as well as help their families to have these dialogues with them.
With many of the families we treat, we find that lack of communication is a common factor. One of the main skills we can help them develop is effective communication, such as learning how to validate.
But first we have to help parents learn to emotionally regulate their own overwhelm, fatigue, anger, and frustration with their child so they can utilize the skills we teach them. As they begin to incorporate these skills, they begin to see a way forward and to connecting with their child on this issue.
Resources to Learn More About Online Teen Dating
- Teenager Therapy: #SwipingSafely Interactive Webpage – The amazing, teen-produced podcast, “Teenager Therapy”, devoted five episodes to the issue of queer teens and youth accessing “hookup apps” like Grindr. This interactive page contains links to the podcast, stories from real teens who used dating apps, and resources for how to help.
- Online dating and Teens: Expert tips and advice In this YouTube video, Internet Matters Ambassador Dr. Linda Papadopoulus provides advice and guidance on what parents need to know when it comes to helping teens create, build and manage romantic relationships online.
- Is your teen dating someone online? – Downloadable guide for parents from Internet Matters.
- Teens & Online Dating Advice Hub for Parents – A robust resource from Internet Matters.
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