Call my naïve but I didn’t really expect teenage girls to be venturing into the online dating world. Turns out, I was wrong, and they are. Virtual connecting is becoming more popular in our digitally saturated lives but also more dangerous. Girls are often entering unknown territory, using apps they are not legally allowed to use, and navigating them alone.
When I asked teens about their dating world, some had celebrity infatuations, others had school crushes, and others had virtual connections. These girls were more than comfortable on, what they dubbed as “gateway” apps, such as Insta and Snapchat and more than familiar with popular dating apps like Tinder, Hinge, Bumble, and Grindr. I was impressed they had already considered what they loved about online dating such as a fun way to get to know different types of people and the pitfalls such as not always feeling they could trust online personas.
Given the fact that most of her online world is private and you are on the periphery of her circle, here’s what you need to know about your daughter and her possible dating experiences.
Number One: You must discuss the upsides and downsides of online dating. Now, she may not want to talk about it but you can talk in general terms. This makes it less personal and may feel more emotionally safe for her. You may talk about characters that date this way in her current Netflix series or ask if her friends are trying it out. If she doesn’t want to talk about it, here’s what girls told me: they loved how easy, casual, instant, and convenient the experience felt. They saw this as a starting point to practice social skills (it felt much less awkward) and a step toward more serious dating (eventually meeting in person), but much less intimidating. They really appreciated the opportunity to meet all kinds of people, all over the world and to figure out the “best fits” for her. Teen girls also enjoyed creating their “ideal” persona and putting their “best foot forward” but they admitted they sometimes lost themselves in their online idealized versions. The downsides they shared included: the superficiality and the games (one person always seemed more interested than the other). They knew it’s all too easy to lie about age, gender, and personality. They recognized that it’s very time consuming and they felt pressure to endlessly “shop” or “sort” through potential partners. In other words, it felt like work. They worried about miscommunication and misunderstandings and not feeling safe, with possible catfishers, weirdos, and creeps. This is what you can ask her about, or at least know.
Number Two: You can encourage her to think about her boundaries. Again, she may not want to talk about it but the vital question is this: what is she willing to share? Girls need to think about how personal they want to be and also what topics and pictures they are comfortable sending or posting. I tell parents all the time, girls must be as private as possible when it comes to details about themselves and they need to turn location settings off. People pleasing and vulnerable girls all too often cross their own boundaries and share way too much. Also, they can get stuck in conversations on “hot topics” they don’t want to discuss like dating or sex. I can’t tell you how many girls talk about the pressure they feel to “sext” or send sexually explicit messages or images. So often, they don’t want to but the fear of rejection is so great, they do. Her boundaries need to be hers and we can help her think about where to draw her line.
Number Three: You can help her create a support circle. Her online dating life is likely going to be kept private. She may come to you if things go awry. She may not. Girls do know they have options and they are practiced at: deleting, blocking, reporting, or “ghosting” people if they are feeling uncomfortable, scared, or violated. Nonetheless, they can still struggle to disappoint or reject others and they can feel alone. Let’s talk to them about creating a circle of people whom they trust and turn to, if need be. Let’s encourage them to set up these kinds of relationships beforehand. Her circle can include an older sibling, a family friend, a coach, a mentor, a counselor, or even you. A simple conversation can become her safety net and allow her to feel more protected and more empowered and allow her to approach her trusted source when she needs to talk about her dating experiences or doesn’t know how to respond to someone. If you, or someone else she is comfortable with, are part of her circle and she is open to it, I suggest research online dating together. She may be shocked to learn the facts such as: 70 percent of teens are online dating and most online dating users do so in private and without their parents’ knowledge or permission.
Your daughter may not be dating online (yet). Not all girls are into dating at all. She may have other priorities, or not be interested; she may feel too worried or scared. She may not be ready. Yet, after my recent conversations with adolescent girls, it is more likely that she is already hearing about it, thinking about it, or trying it out. Let’s help her, in the ways we can, from the periphery, and as involved as she’ll allow.
For more information and support for navigating life with teen girls, check out Growing Strong Girls: Practical Tools to Cultivate Connection in the Preteen Years and Rooted, Resilient, and Ready available on Amazon and Audible as well as the website Bold New Girls.