My 13-year-old granddaughter told me that she is dating online using an app designed just for teenagers. Is this safe? I read your recent columns about online dating for adults and wondered if you knew about these dating sites used by teens all over the world. How can I help her protect herself?
Online dating platforms for adults intentionally offer their members privacy by encouraging usernames (not real names), and providing options to block members or remove member profiles from consideration. On Match.com, you can even pay a nominal fee for access to a talk-and-text phone number to give to potential dates so you don’t have to share your digits. Unfortunately, adult predators sometimes manipulate these tools to their advantage. But many teen dating sites don’t have similar privacy measures built-in. That doesn’t mean a teen is more likely to be a victim. Lonely adults in search of love can be incredibly naïve, especially those who are on the rebound post-divorce.
Loneliness is also a serious issue for teens. The online world is a place to connect and belong. But it’s difficult to determine who a teen is tethered to behind an online profile: Another teen? Or an adult predator posing as a teen? Both are possible and either can be problematic. Consider this: A teen from Sacramento can connect through an online dating site with a teen in Sweden. The Swedish teen is severely depressed. The Sac teen spends countless hours every night trying to help the Swedish teen with his depression. Finally, the Sac teen asks her school counselor what to say to her Swedish boyfriend and is guided to end the relationship. The Swedish teen threatens suicide and then sends her texts and voicemails about his plans. He is unreachable for 48 hours. The Sac teen falls apart. Sound far-fetched? It’s already happened.
The cure? Teens need to understand that no amount of their time, kindness, attention or love can magically transform someone who is struggling with mental health issues. A teen (or adult) experiencing a mental health crisis needs the support of professionals who are trained and educated to assist. Adolescence inspires a tendency toward secrecy. Teens need to be better educated about privacy versus secrecy so they can make smarter choices when confronted by an online (or offline) friend who says, “Promise you won’t tell…”
Let’s circle back to loneliness. Universities have been successful at intimidating high schools into developing curriculum that results in homework overload. Teens are so buried in busy work, they don’t have time to develop friendships or to invest time and energy in nurturing those relationships. So, an online relationship provides controlled connection—or seems to do so. It can be a time suck, too, (as that Sac teen learned the hard way) interfering with homework and happiness. Guide your granddaughter into experiences where she spends time with her friends in healthy ways. Help her organize outings to hike, volunteer, craft or cook with pals. Show her by example and through opportunities you create, how to live a full life offline by valuing friendships in the real world.