In the age of technology, online dating violence is more prevalent than ever before. By learning more about this phenomenon, parents can empower their children to make smart relationship decisions.
Is my teen dating?
It can be awkward to discuss dating with our kids. Many teens avoid discussing this with their parents, so it’s easy to ignore having the conversation.
The average girl begins dating at 12 1/2, while the average boy begins dating at 13 1/2.
As kids begin dating at a younger age, it’s crucial that parents talk to their preteens about digital dating violence. You may be met with eye-rolling, but know that just putting this risk on their radar will empower them.
1.5 million high school-aged teens in the U.S. experience some form of dating violence every single year.-Gordon, 2021
It’s important for these discussions to include the responsible use of technology when meeting new people, the signs of healthy and unhealthy relationships, and general techniques on how to protect themselves from online predators.
Discussing unhealthy relationships
Dating can be an exciting new phase of your child’s life. Teens are often eager to begin, but lack the understanding of the dangers that exist.
In forming relationships with relative strangers, teens can easily become victims—both online and offline—of teen dating violence (TDV), sextortion, cyberbullying, identity theft, and psychological manipulation from both their romantic interests and predators alike.
The stakes are high. Researchers report that 60% of abusers meet their victims in online chats. 4
The National Institute of Justice defines teen dating violence as physical, psychological or sexual abuse; harassment;
or stalking of any person ages 12 to 18 in the context of a past or present romantic or consensual relationship.
— National Institute of Justice, n.d.
Especially among teenagers, in-person dating begins online. Kids may have declared themselves as being in a relationship before they have ever met in person. Young people do not have the life experience to know that we can never really know a person until we have spent time with them, face-to-face.
To complicate the issue, sexting is becoming more prevalent. Researchers analyzed the results of 39 studies surrounding sexting behavior in adolescents ages 11-17. Fifteen percent of the 110,000 participants reported having sent a sext, with 27% reporting being the recipient of nude photos and videos. 12
Is it safe to meet people online?
Many teens view technology as a fun, risk-free tool to meet people they’re interested in.
For teens who may perceive themselves as too shy to approach someone in person, this digital distance can provide a false sense of security.
Digital dating can begin with phone calls, text messages, social media, and through the use of online dating apps. Each of these tools presents dangers to teenagers that families are entitled to know about.
Dating app risks for teens
Despite age restrictions on many dating apps and websites, teens with the right technical skills can bypass them easily, leaving them vulnerable to online predators.
While many adolescents join these online dating apps as a way to meet new people, these apps usually have a strong sexual undertone. Teenagers are not developmentally equipped to navigate the solicitations made on online dating sites meant for adult users.
Many of these dating apps are location-based and allow for the free exchange of images, text, and voice via their chat features. Some dating apps are able to screen out persons listed on the national sex offender register but most are not, especially if they’re free services.
It’s critical for parents to know that teens are active on these online dating apps, which easily grant predators access to their underage children.
Predator risks on dating apps
In recent years, online dating apps have come under scrutiny for their lack of user protection. This concern comes in large part due to their inability to screen out registered sex offenders and persons formally charged with sexual crimes against minors.
In a list distributed by police authorities in Florida (and confirmed by other states in the US) entitled Top 15 Apps Used by Online Predators that Parents Should Know About, 50% of the most popular dating apps used by underage teens were also listed as those used most by predators to stalk their victims 10.
Hot or Not, MeetMe, Skout, and Kik were among these apps.
More than 50% of sexually active gay and bisexual underage boys have had sex with people they met on [online dating] apps.
Although it’s impossible to calculate the exact number of teenagers using online dating apps, studies show that LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to use dating apps and to become victims of sexual predators.
These teens use online dating apps more frequently as a way to avoid social disapproval and rejection.
Teen dating violence
In addition to being careful about online predators they don’t know, teens should also be prudent in their relationships with those they do know.
How inexperience can lead to dating violence
Because of the age of the partners involved, emotions can run high in teenage romances. This can lead to very serious cases of TDV.
As adolescents begin relationships, they’re at greater risk of experiencing dating violence because they’re still learning about the dating world.
Teens have an underdeveloped ability to constructively cope with frustration, jealousy, or other negative emotions.-Hinduja & Patchin
Studies show that teens are less able to deal with negative emotions that can arise from relationships and break-ups and experience more pressure to remain in harmful situations due to social status. 8
Dating violence types
TDV can be displayed in various forms of violence against a victim. As parents, it’s important to know what these forms are and how they are manifested.
4 Types of Teen Dating Violence
- Physical violence: Hurting or attempting to hurt a partner by hitting, kicking, or using another type of physical force.
- Psychological aggression: Using verbal and non-verbal communication with the intent to harm a partner mentally or emotionally and exert control over a partner.
- Sexual violence: Forcing or attempting to force a partner to take part in a sex act or sexual touching when the partner does not consent or is unable to consent or refuse. Includes non-physical sexual behaviors like posting or sharing sexual pictures of a partner without their consent or sexting someone without their consent.
- Stalking: Repeating a pattern of unwanted attention and contact by a current or former partner that causes fear or safety concerns for an individual victim or someone close to the victim.
Despite the fact that teen dating violence can affect anyone, it is more prevalent among teenage girls and LGBTQ+ youth. 5
Despite its prevalence, TDV should never be tolerated as a normal part of emotional teen behavior or accepted as typical in relationships between adolescents.
As parents, we can send a strong message by having many open conversations, and immediately intervening should our child be the victim or the perpetrator.
If you or someone you know is experiencing any form of violence enacted by another, seek help immediately. Keeping the relationship a secret will only give a violent partner more power.
If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, visit the National Domestic Violence website or call at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.
It’s imperative that parents and guardians ensure the safety of the child and get help immediately, if necessary. It’s not their fault, so let your child know they’re not alone.
Children who are perpetrating TDV need immediate help through counseling. Really robust intervention is the lifeline these kids need.
When teen dating violence turns digital
TDV can also occur online. The majority of teens in America are constantly connected to their smartphones and the internet. Their daily routines are often dictated—psychologically and emotionally—by continual notifications and social media updates.
In 2018, 95% of teens had access to a smartphone and 45% of teens admitted to being online almost constantly.
Adolescents use this online time not only to create their sense of self-identity, but to construct much of their romantic lives as well.
According to the Violence Against Women learning network, there are six general types of cyber violence against women and girls using technology 15:
How common is online dating violence?
Digital dating abuse continues to be an under-reported phenomenon among teens—often with kids not understanding they’re even involved in an abusive relationship.
In a study of over 2,200 middle and high school students in the U.S., over 28% had been victims of online dating violence in some form.
Worse still, when a teenager experiences digital dating abuse, they will likely experience in-person violence from their partner as well.
Online dating victims are 2x as likely to be physically abused, 2.5x as likely to be psychologically abused, and 5x as likely to be sexually coerced once targeted through technology.—Janet Olsen, News Writer, Michigan State University
This suggests a strong correlation between sexting and increasing violent behaviors between teenage partners.
12 Indicators of Abusive Partners
Because online dating violence is so widespread, it’s important for teens and parents to know and recognize the signs of digital dating abuse.
These behaviors often mirror those displayed during violent in-person relationships, only they begin as threatening, harmful, and shaming interactions online.
Because of the personal nature of the offense, teenagers who are victims of digital dating abuse suffer lasting harmful effects on their mental and emotional health.
Beyond fleeting fear or embarrassment, online dating violence victims experience a range of intense, often long-lasting emotional and psychological harms. These can include depression, anxiety, anger, and suicidal thoughts.9
Signs Your Teen is a Victim of Digital Dating Abuse
- Acts secretive about their relationships
- Begins using drugs or alcohol to destress
- Bullies others without a history of bullying
- Displays suicidal thoughts, anxiety, and depression
- Exhibits frequent, inexplicable anger outbursts
- Hides phone, email, or text messages from others
- Lies to family and friends
- Withdraws from family
Noticing these signs in your teen can be disconcerting but helping your child heal is possible if you realize there are things you can do.
Provide your child with comfort and support if they have been abused. Realize that it isn’t your fault. Your child will need you as an advocate and ally during this time.
As a parent, you can best demonstrate your love by being understanding, seeking resolution and healing, and not focusing on what you or your child could have done differently. Reframe the experience as a way to move forward, now able to recognize the warning signs of dating violence.
Parents can help protect their teens
Taking preventative measures, parents can help protect teens in both online and offline dating worlds. Most strategies focus on having honest conversations about a child’s relationships and online safety.
Here are some helpful tips you can use to help your teens avoid compromising situations when dating.
Teach digital awareness
Technology and phones are often involved in dating. It’s crucial to teach your teen how to navigate the digital world carefully, whether it’s through text messages and calls or on social media.
To empower adolescents to use technology as a tool for good, teach them online safety. Discuss staying digitally safe from the start of relationships.
Responsible Tech Tips
- Avoid sharing passwords or information about your location, home, or whereabouts with anyone
- Don’t send anything private or compromising electronically
- Know that predators can easily take advantage of online dating sites
- Never meet someone you’ve contacted online alone
- Restrain from sharing personal information online
- Stay open about your relationships
- Stop communicating with those who make you uncomfortable or make demands
- When using social media, turn off location-sharing and don’t “check-in” at multiple locations—these are easily tracked
Parents best help their teens as they begin dating by keeping an open mind and maintaining communication.
It may seem uncomfortable to discuss romantic interests and sexuality with teens, but remember that they have few sources to turn to—and you want to be their first.
In a national survey of 500 parents of children ages 11-18, dating abuse was far less likely to be discussed than things such as finances, schoolwork, the economy, drugs, and alcohol.——Journal of Adolescent Health
Whether they have experience with online dating apps, share a same-gender attraction, or open up to you about fears in their relationship, try to keep shame out of the conversation.
Instead, focus on sharing knowledge and finding healthy ways to navigate these new relationships or ways to heal from victimization.
Discuss healthy vs. unhealthy relationships
As adolescents develop, it’s critical they understand what healthy relationships are and how to create and maintain them. This includes managing emotions appropriately and communicating feelings in a healthy way. 5
In healthy relationships, others will respect your personal boundaries, listen to your concerns, and never force or coerce you to do things you aren’t comfortable with.—Gordon, 2021
Knowing what relationships should look and feel like can help our teens be confident in their dating decisions. We can model healthy connections for our children while remaining open for discussions.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Relationships
Due to the complexity of relationships, teens are rarely able to recognize red flags in the behavior of others on their own.
As parents, we can emphasize these key characteristics. By doing so, our kids can see signs in themselves and their partners that they may not have noticed otherwise.
Beauty in balance: how to have positive conversations with teens
As in all things parenting, balance is key. Keeping discussions light while focusing on solutions can help everyone stay open to the conversation.
In all of your conversations about dating, be sure to highlight things your child is doing well. Talk about the excitement of dating, share your teenage dating stories with them, and always project confidence that your child can navigate the dating world safely.
For more tips on how to talk to your kid about difficult subjects, subscribe to the Gabb Family Resources newsletter.