In the days before smartphones, dating apps, and constant internet connectivity, teenage couples would meet each other at school or through their friends, and communicate with each other primarily through phone calls (and maybe a few secret notes passed in class).
While today’s teens may still do this, modern technology has given them dozens of other ways to meet and contact potential partners, from social media and chat apps, to online communities and dating websites. Although Tinder does not allow users under age 18, there are plenty of other apps your teen may use to connect with strangers online, including using a fake birthdate to bypass the system.
At some point, your teen may choose to explore online dating, and even pursue romantic relationships. As McAfee Family Safety Evangelist Toni Birdsong writes in a blog post, “teens are curious. It’s fun [for them] to meet and date people they don’t see in the hallways every day. It feels good when someone swipes right and finds them attractive.”
You may not like the people they’re chatting with; you may not even be able to decode their chat language if you read it on their screen. But your child needs the freedom to make their own choices – within reason.
How To Help Your Teen Stay Safe While Online Dating
If you know or suspect that your teenager is dating someone they’ve met online, start a conversation with them about the physical and emotional risks of online dating. Here’s how Birdsong recommends talking to your child about staying safe in the virtual dating world:
Encourage your teen to verify a potential partner’s identity. It’s easy for catfish to take advantage of young, vulnerable teenagers looking for love and acceptance. Birdsong says to encourage your child to research the people they’re meeting online and make sure they are who they say they are. Look them up on other social media platforms, and search their public records to help you learn more about their background.
Advise them to take safety precautions when meeting in person. Your teenager may eventually want to arrange a face-to-face meeting with their online admirer. Allow them to go, but insist that the date take place in a public location. Birdsong says your child should drive their own vehicle there instead of letting their date pick them up (if your teen doesn’t have a license or car, drive them yourself), and their phone should be fully charged when they leave the house. Remind them that they should stay in touch with you throughout the date – and call or text you immediately if they feel unsafe.
Help your child understand and define their own relationship values. “In a swipe right culture, values can quickly vanish,” said Birdsong. If your child wants to pursue a relationship through online dating, talk to them about healthy, respectful relationships and what they should look for and expect in a partner. Make sure they know they can and should walk away from any person who isn’t treating them right, and that they don’t owe their new love interest anything if they decide the relationship isn’t working.
Even if you’re worried about your teen’s dating decisions, it’s important to trust their judgment as they age and mature. Setting harsh restrictions will only push them to rebel and shut you out of any conversations about their personal life. As your child navigates this confusing and emotional period of their development, your role is to be there as a mentor and guide, not as a dictator.