Our kids are finding love online with teenage dating apps. But don’t panic.

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Recently, a friend called to tell me the news: her college freshman daughter has a new boyfriend. I was surprised to hear she was dating someone—her classes are all online, and her campus dorm has strict social distancing in place. How does that work? Teenage dating apps?

Turns out one of her classmates noticed a lacrosse stick hanging behind the daughter’s head on her dorm room wall while they were “in” their online introductory computer science class. He privately messaged her and asked her about it. They met up to throw balls with their sticks one afternoon, then began meeting up for outdoor meals, and now he’s the new boyfriend.

She is not the only teen finding romance online. While the pandemic has changed parenting for some, it’s also changing the way teens are dating. On one social media app, high school and college students have been posting videos of their online class crushes set to the soundtrack of the Fugees’ version of “Killing Me Softly.” Sometimes the objects of their affection find the posts and post reactions that lead to dates. And sometimes they don’t … which, when you think about it, is pretty much how in-person crushes play out.

Yes, there are dating apps for teens

There are plenty of parents who probably met on a dating app or online when the age requirement was over 18. But today there are apps designed specifically for ages 13 to 18. And it’s clear that even a pandemic is not going to get in the way of our kids flirting. They just have to get a little more creative when it comes to finding each other. And there are plenty of teenage dating apps for that—for example, Yubo, an app that’s billed as a way to make new friends, is for ages 12 and up; SKOUT and Taffy, which are marketed more directly as teen dating apps, are for ages 17 and up. The variety might give you pause as a parent, but you can find vetted reviews for each app by Common Sense Media.

In reality, says parenting and child development expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa, dating apps might be safer for our teenagers than we think.

“Our parents hated that we went to parties and bars and clubs,” she says. “I would argue that the safety features and accountability available on these apps—as well as the opportunity to do a little fact-checking on people that nobody could do at a bar—makes them safer than what we did.”

We are digital immigrants, Gilboa says, but our kids are digital natives. Using dating apps does not seem like a strange or scary concept to teens.

“This generation does their banking on their phones, shops for groceries on their phones, their schedules for working at the restaurant or babysitting—whatever it is, it’s all on their phones. Why would they not turn to their phones to find a date?”

Sitting in a tree, t-e-x-t-i-n-g

Teen dating apps, Gilboa points out, allow for “tons of texting and conversation and sharing of memes and finding mutual friends before you ever choose to meet that person.” The first thing our teens do when they meet someone online is figure out if they have friends in common, what that someone has posted, what others have posted about and to them, and what they have “liked.”

“This is vetting in a way that you could not do four years ago,” she says.

And if you know a teenager, you have already realized that it’s the equivalent of knowing an FBI agent. “Young people who are looking for someone to date online are more rigorous than most master’s programs at vetting someone’s social media. And if they are just looking for something less than a serious long-term relationship, then, at least in this case, you have a little bit of time to determine likability and respectfulness first. They can at least talk before anyone is swept off their feet by chemistry.”

How to talk about using teen dating apps safely

But there are still some important messages you will want to send to kids about using teen dating apps—particularly when it comes to sex, says Julianna Miner, an adjunct professor of global and community health at George Mason University and author of Raising a Screen-Smart Kid: Embrace the Good and Avoid the Bad in the Digital Age.

According to the CDC, teenagers are having significantly less sex these days than their parents did as teenagers, Miner says. The parental generation drank more, did more drugs and had more sexual partners at a younger age too.

There are aspects to going online in the pursuit of love that require teens, like anyone else, to be aware. “My concern is that there are going to be some teens using dating apps who are looking for actual relationships, while others will just be looking for validation and attention in the form of something casually physical,” Miner says. It’s important for teens who are connecting in this way to make sure they are on the same page about their expectations and that they communicate those expectations accordingly.

Listen, don’t judge, and say “tell me more.”

It’s no surprise here, but teens don’t like to be told what to do. But when they have a say in establishing some ground rules, you’ll both be a lot better off. Gilboa suggests starting the conversation with a few questions, then be prepared to listen, not judge. Here are a few to try:

  • “If you were going to use a dating app, which one would you use, and why?”
  • “How can a person know what someone else is looking for when they use these apps?”
  • “I want to talk to your younger sister/brother/cousin about dating apps. Any advice you think I should give them?”

It’s not a question of whether you should have this conversation, but when. Still, Gilboa says, teens are likely safer using a dating app than attending a college party: “Nobody can spike their drink.”

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