So much of teenage life happens in the online world. The activities that once took a large amount of time and effort, such as finding entertainment, shopping, and socializing, to name just a few, are now nearly effortless, and can be done without ever leaving the house. With the power of the internet, the world is at your teen’s fingertips.
And for better or for worse, this includes the world of dating.
Long gone are the days of teens waiting by the easily-monitored corded phone for a call from a potential suitor. The younger generations can now arrange a date with a single swipe of a thumb.
With this newfound ease comes a particular set of problems older generations might not be familiar with. When kids are just beginning to explore romantic interactions, dating sites, apps, and social media can be risk-filled endeavors leading to a loss of privacy, meetings with strangers, and inappropriately intimate encounters.
But there is much you can do, as a parent, to alleviate that risk—all it takes is a conversation. To help you get started, let’s take a look at 7 tips for protecting your teens from online dating.
Know What to Look For
If you want to effectively watch out for your teen, you’re going to have to know what dating sites and apps are most popular, and what they can do. Here’s a brief list.
If your teen is dating online, they’re most likely using an app—you’ll find these on your teen’s phone rather than their computer.
Tinder is, by far, the most popular dating app, and is linked to a user’s Facebook account, as well as other social media sites, pulling information from these to create a profile which others can view.
The way it works is simple: from Facebook, Tinder will pull the user’s first name, age, and a few pictures, which other users can view. When your teen uses Tinder, photos of other people in the area will appear, and they can choose to “swipe right,” which indicates that they are interested in the person, or “swipe left,” which means they are not. If two people swipe right on one another, they are matched up and can message each other.
Skout is another popular app that helps users connect to others who are geographically nearby by using a “Meet Me” feature. Users can exchange pictures, send “winks,” and chat.
The next most popular method of online dating involves dating sites like OkCupid and Match.com, which are websites, so you can find them in your teen’s internet history. These are dating sites that allow users to create a profile and get matched up with compatible people—pretty simple stuff here.
Finally, social media can be an innocuous-seeming avenue for romantic hookups—the unprecedented ability to communicate online, exchange pictures and files, and arrange meetings can lead to the same results as Tinder, Skout, or a dating website.
So you’ve discovered that your teen has a dating app or website account, or that they’ve been flirting—or more—through social media.
Don’t panic. Don’t yell or freak out or break down your teen’s door.
It’s time for a conversation, and you might only get one chance to set the tone for these next few crucial years.
First, realize that, yes—unsupervised online dating is a bad idea for young teens, and they need you to help keep them safe. This is the attitude you should take. You’re not here to punish or hurt them. You’re here to inform them and ensure their safety.
But if you barge, screaming, into their room, belt in hand, your teen is just going to start hiding their activities from you.
Instead, sit down with them and have a talk—a real conversation, not just a “don’t do that”. Help your teen to understand how easy it is for someone to misrepresent themselves online. Tell them that they need to include you in any dating plans or conversations, if you’re going to allow that. Gently tell them that you’re are going to be involved, not because you’re nosy, but because you love them.
Above all, let your teen know that you understand him or her. They’ll appreciate it. And when issues come up, they’ll be much more likely to come to you for help and guidance.
Protect Their Privacy
The next step for protecting your teen from the dangers of online dating is to ensure the protection of their privacy.
Do you know who they’re sharing their information with? Are they sending pictures with geographically identifying information? Are they sending birth dates and school names?
If you’ve found that your teen is using any of the aforementioned dating apps or sites, make sure that they haven’t given out any vital information to strangers. Your teen may not like it, but you need to take an active hand in protecting their online privacy by periodically checking into their online activity, at least until they understand the risks at hand.
Do this by asking your teen to show you around their online activity. Take a look at what they’re sending and receiving, and if they’re being sensible about what they reveal, and about to whom they reveal it.
Remember—everything, every app, and every web browser has a history. A quick Google search can reveal how to check it. Don’t leave your child’s privacy up to chance—get just as involved in their online life as you are in their real life.
Talk About Risks
The younger you are, the more you believe that you know—this is especially true for teens. They think they know the risks. They think they know all the potential pitfalls.
They don’t. You need to talk to them about this.
With just a little geographical information, for example, a person can meet your teen outside of their home or school—unexpectedly. Although this is uncommon, warn your teen about the dangers of online predators.
Warn them, also, about the social risks of revealing compromising information or photos. Is your teen ready for the social fallout when that scantily-clad photo of him or her is shown around? Simply bringing this little fact up could be one of the best deterrents to such behavior.
Talk to your child about the dangers of misrepresentation, as well. The online world is so enticing because we can be anything or anyone we wish—the barrier of the computer screen makes us braver, and allows us to wear a mask.
Finally, talk to your teen about the pitfalls of online-only relationships. It’s becoming more and more common for people to date exclusively online for a time and break up, having never met one another. This isn’t the healthiest sort of relationship—it prevents people from developing the real skills needed to navigate the world of romance later in life.
Whether they actually adhere to the dating rules you lay down or not, if you educate your teen on the risks of online dating, they’re much likelier to keep themselves safe.
For younger teens—as well as immature older teens— online dating is a definite no. In this case, providing an IRL—“in real life”—alternative can be helpful.
This can take the form of inviting a potential date over for dinner, or going on a family outing—this encourages the development of interpersonal skills while simultaneously allowing you to keep an eye on your progeny, both of which are vital at this stage.
But here’s the hard part. When your teen is old enough to handle dating on his or her own, let them. Find out where they’re going, who they’re going there with, and how they’re going to get there. Agree on a curfew, and, if you’re satisfied with the plan, let them go.
Remember—a well-organized, in-person date is infinitely easier to manage than the online alternative.
With the world of dating being more accessible than ever, your teen needs you to keep them safe. Maintain a balance in your teen’s life—stay involved without being oppressive. Be concerned without being angry.
Do this, and your teen will listen. They will come to you for guidance just as much as you go to them to guide, and the dangers of online dating will be greatly lessened.