This article was contributed by NCA-CEOP

NCA-CEOP is a command of the National Crime Agency. As well as being a reporting mechanism, NCA-CEOP works with child protection partners across the UK and overseas to identify the main threats to children, and coordinates activity against these threats to bring offenders to account.

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Teenage relationships in the digital age

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NCA-CEOP and sexual health charity Brook have spoken to over 2,000 young people about how technology affects love and relationships 

Many parents feel like their children’s use of technology is overwhelming. But, lots of young people feel that being constantly connected is just an ordinary part of life.

As with teenagers throughout history, regular contact with friends is a huge part of their lives. The difference today is that, if they can’t be with them in person, they use technology to stay in touch. This is as true when it comes to romantic relationships as it is for platonic friendships. 

‘Many spoke of it being easier to say things via digital communication than face-to-face’

Two thirds (62%) of the young people we spoke to said they like to hear from a partner every few hours or more, with many commenting that it’s easier to say things via digital communication than face-to-face.

‘You can figure out what you’re gonna say and make it sound better and, sort of, adjust it to what you want,’ explained John, 14.
Alfie, also 14, said, ‘It’s easier to talk over Snapchat... and then as time goes on it’s easy to speak them in person.’

This concept is one that many adults will understand. It can certainly be easier to flirt with someone over text than in a school corridor!

Despite these regular connections, it seems that boys, in particular, struggle to talk about a range of issues when they communicate digitally. They told us they find it difficult to speak about things that are worrying them, or to express what they want from their relationship. They are also unsure about what steps to take to sort out arguments when they occur.

From a parent’s point of view, encouraging sons to open up about issues if you think something is bothering them could really help, as many boys feel uncomfortable starting those conversations themselves. We have some advice on starting these conversations below. 

Break-ups and technology

As the saying goes, breaking up is hard to do, and the report showed that digital communication can sometimes have a negative effect at the end of a relationship.

Some talked about feeling bad after being dumped via text or private message on social media rather than face-to-face. Others mentioned having sexual images they’d sent to a partner being shared with others when the relationship ended, or experiencing verbal abuse, including having nasty comments spread across friendship groups online.

Constantly checking up on an ex on social media is also a problem for some. Technology can ‘freeze’ emotional moments, which can add to the difficulty in moving on.

How parents can help

As parents, taking an interest in how technology can have an impact on your teenager’s relationship will help you understand your child’s world and what they’re going through.

Our research showed that being able to confide in a non-judgemental parent can help children learn from the experiences they’ve encountered online and create a more open environment for teenagers to seek help and support them to move on.

Nurture your relationship

The research highlighted that where there are close bonds between a parent and their child, they are seen as the central source of support and knowledge by those children. This helps teens feel like they can tell their parents if they’re unsure or worried about a relationship or someone they’re getting to know.

Many young people highlighted the positive role that their parents played in their lives and relationships. A number of young people described their parents as influential role models and the people they turn to for support and advice.

ʻThere must be some nice boys, but I’ve always wanted someone who, like, respects people, like my dad,ʼ said 15-year-old Rosie.

Share your own knowledge

Our research showed that young people really believe in the benefit of parents sharing their own good and bad experiences. They want them to talk about their own lives and what they’ve learnt about relationships.

Young people also said how important it is for parents to understand ‘digital romance’, and not to just express negative and risky views about technology.

Don’t judge

When it came to things that young people found to be unhelpful, some talked of incidents when judgement and lack of support from parents made them feel they had no one to talk to.  An example of this came from 12-year-old Tyler.

‘What I would be afraid of if I told my mum is that my mum would get ashamed of me and all that. And like, some parents take it really hard and might even disown you.ʼ

For some, the judgement from their parents became a barrier to seeking help if things went wrong in a relationship, particularly when it came to doing things they knew their parents might not approve of. In some cases, this also involves parents ‘punishing’ young people, which did not help to create the nurturing relationship needed to help young people seek support from their parents. 

Online vs offline romance

Whilst technology is a huge part of young people’s lives, it hasn’t replaced face-to-face relationships. A number of young people we talked to referred to offline as ‘the real world,’ suggesting it’s seen as different to, and more authentic than, online experiences (although this wasn’t the case for everyone). In fact, the majority of young people we spoke to preferred and placed greater value on face-to-face communication.
There’s no doubt technology has changed the way many young people meet and talk to those they’re romantically involved with, but it seems that it hasn’t yet replaced real-life romance. And the role of parents in supporting young people through relationships is every bit as important in the digital age as it has always been.

Further reading

Read Digital Romance

The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or NCA-CEOP.

Updated: January 2019

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