Family, Kids & Relationships

The world of online teen dating: What parents need to know

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Kids and teens do a lot of their socializing online, so it should come as no surprise that many of their encounters with dating, crushes, and romance will be online too. But how much do you know about the world of online dating for teens?

Having open conversations with tweens and teens about relationships and dating is not only necessary, but should also overlap with conversations about online safety. It helps to be armed with some information first, but you don’t have to have all the answers. Here’s a guide to what to look out for and what to discuss with tweens and teens.

Are teen dating apps a thing?

There have been dating apps marketed to teens, but most of them have since changed their age requirements to 18+ when it became clear that teen dating apps could encourage inappropriate or predatory behavior. The landscape of dating apps changes quickly, and some have rebranded themselves many times over.

There are some “friend finding” social media apps that are geared toward teens, though. Yubo and Spotafriend are a couple of examples, but any popular social media app (Snapchat, Instagram, etc.) can serve a similar purpose.

Many teens use social media and even gaming platforms to find online friends or potential romantic matches. If your teen is mature enough to have a social media account and follow smartphone safety guidelines, you probably won’t be able to ban them from exploring social connections online. There can be a lot of value in finding community and connections online, as long as your teen knows how to go about it safely. It’s important to keep the lines of communication open and discuss the risks.

App features to look out for

While it’s nearly impossible to keep up with all of the apps that are currently trending for teens, it’s great to have a general idea of what kinds of features can be risky.

Kids don’t like being tricked, so teaching them about these risks in a factual, non-judgmental way can be effective. If they are old enough to have access to apps with any of these features, you need to review privacy settings and safety guidelines with them.

Messaging with strangers: Kids should only be using apps that offer robust privacy settings. If they are mature enough to be making friends online, be sure to have conversations with them about safe vs. unsafe online friends.

Uploading or sending photos: As soon as kids have access to a phone or internet-connected device, have the talk with them about sharing photos. Be sure they know that any photos and videos they send or upload can be screenshotted and shared with an unlimited number of people (yes, even content that “disappears” such as on Snapchat). Assure them that they can come to you right away if they make a mistake.

Location tagging: Check the settings of all apps to make sure their profile, photos, posts, and activity are not broadcasting their location. Even if content is not tagged with location, photos or videos showing hints about their location can be risky too — so be sure they know not to go live, post publicly or share with people they don’t know and trust in real life.

Too many ads or in-app purchases: Ads and in-app purchases can range from annoying to misleading to exploitative. Teach kids to apply critical thinking skills to ads, and also make sure they know that influencer content often contains ads.

Lenient age “requirements”: If all the user has to do is input their birthday to get into an app, instead of providing proof, then it’s way too easy for users to fake their age. Be sure your kid understands the safety reasons behind age restrictions on certain apps and websites.

How to help kids avoid scams, predators, catfishing, and more

Unfortunately, scammers, predators, and cyberbullies are present on social apps of all kinds, whether they are specifically for dating or not. On some apps, adults can pose as teens (and vice versa) and easily get around age guidelines by lying about their age.

Adults and teens frequently “catfish” other users by using fake identities, photos, or details about their lives. Catfishing is a form of cyberbullying, but it can also cross into the realm of child sexual abuse.

Romance is one of the psychological tools that online scammers use to get people emotionally invested enough to make choices that they would otherwise not make — like sending money, information, or photos. Sextortion is one type of online sexual abuse in which people are coerced into sending suggestive photos or videos, and then blackmailed for money.

Predators may try to send gifts as a way of “grooming” their victims. Plus, scammers may use the promise of a gift or prize as a way to get their victims to give out personal information like location or accounts.

You can empower tweens and teens with these tools and guidelines:

  • Learn how to do a reverse image search to investigate photos of anyone you don’t actually know in person. This will help you find out whether they’ve stolen their profile photo from the internet. If someone’s photos seem too polished to be real, ignore them or pause to do some research.
  • Always do your research by looking at the details of a profile. If someone claims to be someone you know or trust, go back to the original account of the person, influencer, or company you trust to compare.
  • Never send photos or personal information like phone number, address, or any type of banking or online accounts.
  • Never agree to meet up in person, unless you have agreed upon a solid, safe plan with your grownups.
  • Be aware of the latest scams. If someone you have an online relationship with asks for money or gift cards, even if it’s someone you’ve been talking to for a long time and grown to trust, pause the communication right away. Report it as a scam and/or ask a trusted adult for guidance.
  • Learn safe vs. unsafe ways to explore their curiosity about sex and romance online.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.