When most of today’s parents were teenagers, they developed their romantic crushes on the person they sat next to in algebra class, bumped into in front of their school lockers, or spotted at the next table in the cafeteria.
But these days, teens in search of a date for Saturday night can find romance online, which brings both convenience and risk.
“More than ever, teenagers need a crash course in online safety and social media issues that they encounter on a daily basis,” says Gabriella van Rij, a kindness activist, anti-bullying proponent and author whose latest book is “Watch Your Delivery.”
February is an opportune time for parents to broach the subject because it’s National Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. But van Rij says any time is the right time.
“It’s a subject you should have ongoing conversations about,” she says.
Online dating is extremely popular among adults, but teenagers haven’t been left out as technology continues to shape the way people meet and interact.
A Pew Research Center study found that 8 percent of all teenagers say they met a romantic partner online. Most teens, though, reported they hadn’t dated anyone at all. When Pew narrowed its findings just to teens who have dated, the percentage who met their dating partner online jumped to nearly 25 percent.
In addition, Pew found that 31 percent of teens 13 to 17 had sent a flirtatious message online and 10 percent had gone so far as to send flirty or sexy pictures or videos of themselves.
“Like it or not, for students today, social media is a way to amplify everything,” van Rij says.
While social media sites provide a means to socialize, they also expose teenagers to the more unpleasant aspects of technology, such as cyber bullying and the dangers of online predators.
Indeed, one-fourth of all teens say they have unfriended or blocked someone on social media because that person was flirting in a way that made them uncomfortable, Pew reported.
“That’s a clear sign that this isn’t always nice and innocent,” van Rij says, “and parents need to step in to protect their teens.”
Some of the ways to do that include:
• Talk to them. The simplest, most direct way to protect your teen from online dangers is to discuss with them your concerns. Explain the dangers of communicating with strangers online and urge them to let you know if anyone they don’t know suggests meeting them.
• Make sure your son or daughter knows they can come to you. Whether they are being bullied or made to feel uncomfortable by improper sexual comments, teens need to feel confident that they can turn to their parents for support.
• Monitor their aps. Find out about the aps they are using. This doesn’t have to seem intrusive. Make it fun, van Rij says. “Express curiosity about the aps and let them explain to you how they work,” she says. “And you have a right as a parent to be on every ap your son or daughter is on. That way you can monitor what they’re doing, not to spy, but for safety reasons.”
“A lot of this comes down to parents having a good relationship with their teens during what are very pivotal years,” van Rij says. “It’s just another part of influencing and guiding them toward becoming responsible and mature adults.”