Why Teens Choose to Connect Online
As a teen therapist, I often hear about teens who find both friends and romantic relationships in the online realm as opposed to IRL (in real life.) And, on some level, this makes sense. It allows teens to go deeper into a relationship more quickly. It's easier to say something when you don't have to see the reaction on someone's face. Plus, when you're not right in front of someone, you have the time to think and respond rather than react and embarrass yourself.
From a teenage standpoint, this concept provides a shield of safety. Tees especially fear judgment from peers and the internet and social media provide ways to create a persona that's everything they want the world to see (and think about them) without the vulnerability of baring anything they don't want others to know.
So What's the Problem?
I like to equate online relationships to The Three Little Pigs Fairytale. When you create connections online, you're building a house of straw or sticks. You haven't taken the time to build a solid foundation, so when the big bad wolf of conflict or disagreement inevitably visits, the relationship crumbles to the ground.
As an added stressor, online friends can block you, cut you off and ignore you which can often lead to even more hurt feelings and impedes the kind of healthy closure that everyone needs when a relationship ends.
"But... I like things fast and intense!"
I hear this often from the teens I work with! The teenage brain wants fast, intense, instant gratification. And, fast and intense is initially intoxicating. Relationships like this meet the very real and valid need of a teen who desperately wants to feel loved, accepted and connected.
But, fast and intense is a sprint and most teens want the marathon (a real relationship, not just a few days of manufactured feelings that fizzle and fade.)
Follow Hansel and Gretel's lead...
Help your teen slow down by encouraging the "breadcrumb method." Help them take it one step at a time by setting the intention that each interaction has the goal only of leading to the next interaction (whether online or IRL.) Encourage your teen to share only one piece of information at a time to allow the relationship to naturally unfold.
Use the diagram below as a guide to help your teen learn about layers of information to share. (This may help them avoid "personal information vomit" in which they share everything at first meeting in an attempt to create a strong connection.)
Teen Rule of Thumb 1
Share only as deeply as the person you are with is sharing. If they are only talking about their pets, it's not the right time to talk about your depression or your family arguments.
Teen Rule of Thumb 2
Research supports that it takes approximately six full months to *really* know someone. This is generally about the length of time you need to see someone as they truly are and not blinded by your infatuation or your own needs to be loved.
What's a parent to do?
Remind yourself that your teen's actions come from a very real and human need to feel loved and connected. Practice a non-judgmental stance by helping your teen navigate the logistics of what to share and when using the diagram above.
You can also help your teen slow down relationships by working together to come up with concrete markers of when to share certain information and when to engage in certain activities based on how well they know the other person.