Navigating Teen Relationships in a Digital World


If you are the parent of a teenager, you likely know that they spend a lot of time using technology – whether that’s a cell phone, tablet or laptop. But what are they doing on those devices? Essentially, smart phones are mini, handheld computers. They allow users to have access to basic features, such as calling and texting, as well as internet browsing, games, social media apps and dating apps. With all of these things at your son or daughter’s fingertips, it becomes difficult for parents to monitor digital behaviors.

First, let’s discuss terminology. You may feel like teens speak a different language, especially when posting to social media or texting. Here’s a quick run-down of what you might see or hear:

Slide into the DMs – DM stands for “direct message”, which users send via social media apps such as Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. DMs can be one way to start an online conversation by flirting.

Snap Streak – This happens within the Snapchat app. When two users send snaps (photo or video messages) back to one another daily, Snapchat keeps track of the communication next to the username. Teen users often have snap streaks of 100 days or more. Breaking a snap streak can be a passive aggressive action. For example, if your teen’s friend or significant other is mad at them, they could break their snap streak purposely and both users start back at zero.

Ghosting – This is when someone stops communicating suddenly with their romantic partner. The person “ghosting” may even block their partner’s phone number, and block them and their friends on social media. Ghosting someone can create emotional distress and confusion, as there is a lack of closure/explanation. You may hear teens say that the person who ghosted them “left them on read”, which means the person doing the ghosting opened and read the message and purposely never replied.

Meme – Often posted on social media accounts, memes are humorous videos, images and/or text and rapidly shared. The text within a meme sometimes says “that feeling when” (TFW) followed by additional text and photos. Teens and young adults send memes to each other as a way of connecting or flirting.

Now that we’ve covered trending terminology, let’s move on to a more complicated topic: consent and boundaries. Did you know that devices or apps may automatically log your teen’s location? This is because many apps require “Location Services” to be set to “on”. Apps may request limited access to your location data (only when you are using the app) or full access (even when you are not using the app).

But does your son or daughter really know who is checking up on them through these apps? Take Snapchat, for example. If a user has their location setting on, any of their Snapchat friends can see their pinpoint location on the Snapchat Map. This is done by opening Snapchat to the photo screen and pinching the screen with the forefinger and thumb. Here, you can zoom in and out on the map, and it will show the exact location, down to the street name, of the user. To learn how to turn this feature off (often called “ghost mode”), visit https://www.digitaltrends.com/social-media/how-to-turn-off-snapchat-map/.

Another concern for boundaries within teen relationships may be biometric security tools embedded in mobile phones, including fingerprint recognition, face recognition, and voice recognition. It is common for young adults to give their friends “fingerprint access” to their smart phones or devices with biometric tools. By doing this, it allows multiple people to unlock the device. However, this can be misused, especially if your teen has unhealthy friendships or romantic relationships. Fingerprint access can be used as a way to gain power and control over someone, by looking through texts, emails, social media accounts and messages, or downloading apps or software without the consent of the phone owner.

Learn more about technology safety at CommonSenseMedia.org. This site offers articles and guidance for parents who want to keep their families safe and productive online, including a Family Toolkit, developed in partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics: https://www.commonsensemedia.org/AAPtoolkit#get-resources. Additionally, parents can learn about teen dating abuse in this free downloadable brochure  from The Center for Family Safety and Healing.

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