Written by Victoria, RSEI Educator | Published March 3rd, 2022

It would be unusual to enter a classroom, health center, or community space and not see people on their phones. And many of those people are probably scrolling through one of the many social media platforms that exist today. They may also be posting their latest selfie or reposting one from their partner’s page, or messaging friends. 

As youth-serving adults, many of us wind up talking about technology, the internet, and social media when we talk about sexual health and relationships. And we have to. Because so much of the communication and interaction amongst young people happens through their devices and social media apps. 

The use of technology to this degree has added some complexities to relationships. People now initiate conversations and relationships through apps. Folks, for many reasons, may have to set social media-specific boundaries. This blog post is going to explore topics and talking points that could be included in conversations about dating, relationships, and social media. 

Social media platforms as dating apps 

While most dating apps do not allow people under the age of 18, “sliding into someone’s DMs” has become a more popular way for young folks to initiate a romantic connection. Sometimes they may know them IRL (in real life), but not always.

According to a study done by the Pew Research Center, of the 35% of teens ages 13-17 who have been in romantic relationships, 8% of those surveyed said they had met a romantic partner online.

Social media allows people to share a lot of their lives online, which makes it easy for someone to glean information and use it to form a connection. It’s important to talk about how people we haven’t met in person are still considered strangers, who we don’t share personal information with. If a young person ever has questions or concerns about someone they’re talking to online, let them know that talking with a trusted adult can be helpful.

There are also different privacy settings for different apps, which allow you to control what information you want to share. If someone is ever having an issue with another person, they always have the option of blocking them or reporting the profile. Encourage folks to think about what information they want to make public.

Flirting, Sexting, Emojis and…Emotions

People also use social media as a way of flirting or initiating contact with someone they do know from real life. That might look like following or adding someone to their friends’ list, liking their photos, or commenting on them. 

About one-third of all the teens surveyed in this Pew Research study have added/friended someone they’re romantically interested in, or liked, or commented on their posts. 

A lot of people, perhaps especially young people, are more comfortable trying to talk to someone via text or social media messaging than talking in person. 

This Pew Research Center study shows teens with prior dating experience are more likely to send particularly flirtatious or sexy messages, photos, or videos than those teens who do not have dating experience. Specifically, “23% of teens with dating experience have sent sexy or flirty pictures or videos to someone they were interested in.”

There’s a lot to unpack here. For one, communication through text – which is harder to read for tone and sometimes mixed in with abbreviations or emojis – can present some challenges. 

When we talk about healthy relationships – romantic or not – we talk about the importance of trust, respect, and communication.  As youth-serving adults, we can also talk about the ways technology can help us communicate and have tough conversations, as well as when it might be better to discuss something face to face. There is a lot of room for misinterpretation if the only way two or more people communicate is through text message. Talking with a partner about communication styles and being able to talk in person is also important in a relationship.

And of course, we have to talk about sexting. Most young people understand that there is a risk of nude photos getting leaked if someone decides to send them, even to a person they trust. This can be a good moment to brainstorm some other things to think about as well as talk about sexting laws in your state. Many apps have the ability to send photos that can only be viewed for a few seconds and then “disappear.” But people can take screenshots. We also know that anything that is sent via an electronic device or the internet, is going to be stored somewhere forever. No one should do anything they’re uncomfortable with. Consent and healthy relationship discussions can help us talk through peer pressure and the importance of communicating and respecting boundaries.

We also talk about the laws around child pornography, which somewhat vary state by state. But the bottom line is that if someone is under the age of 18, it’s not legal to send photos even if they are consenting, because it is considered child pornography.

Talking about sexting is also a moment to talk about unwanted or unsolicited nude photos. It’s important for folks to know this is never okay.  It is against the law and if it happens, reaching out to a trusted adult, school counselor, or even the authorities can be helpful. 

“Call me, beep me, if you want to reach me”

Now that so many people have devices and different apps, there are also new expectations of how quickly people are supposed to respond to a message, email, or phone call. 

85% of the teens surveyed by the Pew Research center said they expect to hear from their partner at least once a day. 11% expect to hear from their partner hourly. Many people know what their partners are doing most hours of the day. If one person’s communication expectations are different, this can also create moments of conflict. During a conversation about communication expectations, you can talk about the importance of having time and space away from significant others to explore other interests and invest in friendships. And we know every relationship looks different. 

There may be different boundaries around social media and how much communication each person wants. When people are dating, they need to be able to talk about what they want their relationship to look like and what they’re comfortable with.

Technology is always changing

As new apps and forms of communication develop, we are all learning how to navigate them in our relationships. The youth we serve are right there with us – although they probably understand more about these apps than we do. Let’s acknowledge that in our conversations. Technology brings so many benefits to our lives, and naming those is part of creating a balanced conversation. And we want to make sure we’re addressing some of the other risks and points of consideration.

When it comes to a healthy relationship, we can talk about all the things that need to be there for a relationship to be considered healthy and contextualize it for the digital age. We don’t have to know everything about the newest apps or social media trends – we can lean on our young folks for that. 

Ask your participants what apps they use. Present different scenarios and ask if they’ve seen these situations before. Create thoughtful discussion questions.

The most popular app, way of communicating, flirting, or initiating a relationship may change over time. But we can use what we already know about healthy relationships and dating, and help our young folks figure out how that fits into their world online. For more information about healthy relationships and the digital age, check out these resources!