The Love Lives of Digital Natives

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The topic of teenage romance and sex has always been charged, but today’s pervasive digital technology has succeeded in turning up the wattage. Some parents have an easy and open channel with their adolescent around all things amorous while others find the subject painfully awkward and try to avoid it altogether. Regardless of where you and your teenager sit on this spectrum, the digital world puts a new spin on some of the timeless challenges of coming of age. When you’re ready to talk, here are some points to consider.

Curiosity, for better or worse, will be satisfied online.

Young people have always been curious about sex, and when our teenagers have questions, the internet is usually their first stop, for worse and for better. Adolescents can and do find highly explicit sexual material online, and an emerging body of research tells a worrisome story about the place of pornography in young people’s lives. For example, a new research review links exposure to sexually explicit and sexually abusive media to an increased occurrence and acceptance of both dating violence and sexual violence.

On a more positive note, teenagers also turn to the internet for information about relationships and sexual health. Indeed, a recent report found that rates of teenage births and sexually transmitted infections dropped in communities as high-speed internet access improved. The researchers concluded that the reduction in adolescent births was not clearly linked to a shift in abortion rates and was likely explained, in part, by increased access to information about contraception and how to obtain it.

Parents can address both of these fronts by talking with teenagers about pornography and by directing them to dependable online information. While books about healthy sexuality can serve as excellent resources for children and tweens, older adolescents may appreciate (or, at least, tolerate) having their parents highlight online options such as Sex, Etc., a youth friendly website sponsored by Answer at Rutgers University.

Some adolescents might comfortably surf sexual education websites with their parents, while others might prefer to receive a text message from their folks (“Sharing, without comment, a site with solid info…”). And some will welcome an oblique approach — should your teenager mention that a classmate has a serious girlfriend you could say, “If they need it, I hope that they know to check out the health and relationship information that Planned Parenthood puts up online.”

Dating violence can be digital.

Parents should consider talking with their teenagers about abusive relationships, and a conversation about digital mistreatment would be a good place to start. In a recent survey, more than half of adolescent girls and boys had dated someone who tried to monitor or control them by texting so frequently that it made the recipient uncomfortable, expecting immediate responses, asking for their passwords, or tracking their location or social activity.

The same report also found that nearly half of teenagers had been in a relationship with a partner who used technology against them, either to spread rumors, post embarrassing or hurtful messages, or make threats. And roughly a third experienced sexual coercion via digital means: they were pressured to have sex, received unwanted sexual images or were urged to send them, or had their nude pictures sent to others without permission.

In talking with our teenagers about coercive relationships, we should acknowledge that “if someone wants to know what you are doing all the time, that can feel like a really close relationship” but that healthy romances are grounded in trust and support, not spying or intimidation. Further, we can tell our teenagers that we stand ready to help if they ever “feel pushed around by a boyfriend or girlfriend, either online or in person.”

In my experience, adolescents are greatly relieved when we remind them to alert an adult if they are concerned about their own or a friend’s health and safety. Digital dating violence falls squarely into this category as, not surprisingly, it has been linked in some studies to physical and sexual victimization, especially against girls.

Relationships can become round-the-clock affairs.

It’s hard to imagine that anything could up the intensity of a teenager’s first love, but digital technology seems to have done the job. When adolescents in my practice talk about their happy romances, I’m often amazed at how completely their lives are saturated by them.

Teenage couples awaken together by text or call, communicate — hopefully not while driving — on the way to school, connect in person during the day while still texting, FaceTime through their homework, then virtually snuggle online before falling asleep. On more than one occasion I’ve found myself listening to the details of a teenager’s day thinking that my husband and I, except for when we traveled together before we had children, have never been as completely intertwined as many young couples are now.

Most adolescents keep up their friendships and activities even when enjoying healthy, albeit wall-to-wall, romances. Still, it’s important to appreciate what it means for a teenager when an omnipresent relationship ends. In addition to contending with heartbreak, the suddenly single teenager has to find a new way to begin and end each day and to fill a lot of the time in between. Lovelorn teenagers usually bounce back pretty quickly, but parents shouldn’t underestimate the scale of the loss in the short term.

Technology adds some new twists to the age-old roller coaster of teenage romance. Our adolescents may know more than we do about the online world, but we know more about the romantic one. Even if their love lives don’t look like the ones we remember, we still owe it to teenagers to find ways to offer our support and guidance.