Why online dating is a bad idea for teens

Online dating is a bad idea for teens — especially young teens.

That’s why it wasn’t particularly responsible of Seventeen Magazine to publish a blog in which “dating blogger” Isabelle Furth floated the idea of using sites like Match.com to find dates. To be fair, she had concerns about the idea, and she’s in college, so theoretically old enough to make these decisions. But college kids don’t read Seventeen. Middle school students do.  And middle school students are remarkably impressionable.

However, if our only response to this blog is outrage (like the comment that Seventeen gave cyber-stalkers a gift-wrapped present), we miss the point — and some important opportunities.

The reality of the world our children are growing up in is that they are going to meet people online. Don’t get me wrong; teens don’t belong on online dating sites. As they enter the world of dating, it should be with people they know in a real world context, not a cyber-world context. They — and their parents — should know more about their dates than what you can find out from the Internet.

But online dating sites aren’t the only place that that people — and youth — meet online. They meet on all sorts of social media sites and platforms.  As all of us, our children included, start communicating more and more on social media, we run into strangers. Most of those strangers aren’t dangerous. Some of those strangers become friends.

I’ve met some wonderful people on social media, people who have taught me and supported me and made me laugh, people who have helped me be a better doctor, parent and person. Granted, I’m a grownup and have a bit more judgment than a teen when it comes to trusting people online. But our children will be grownups one day, and if they don’t have the skills they need to navigate the world of online relationships, they will run into trouble. Manti Te’o’s 2-year love affair with a nonexistent person is a great example.

But even before they are grownups, social media offers youth the opportunity to connect with, and learn from, people all over the world. These connections can make the world smaller, help to build bridges and tolerance, and prepare our youth for the connected life of the future. Also, for youth who suffer from chronic disease, disabilities or who feel marginalized for other reasons, the Internet offers so many opportunities to learn and find support from people facing the same challenges.  For so many people, youth included, the Internet can be a real lifeline.

So … rather than just saying, “Don’t do that!” I think parents need to do some real talking — and teaching.

Safety has to be first and foremost. Youth are naturally trusting, especially when someone is nice to them — and we all know how nice predators can act online. Parents need to help their teens understand that all is not necessarily as it seems; they to be extremely careful with what they share online. They shouldn’t tell strangers where they live or go to school, for example. Telling secrets or saying bad things about people can work out badly too, if it turns out the new online friend can’t be trusted. And they must never, ever go to an in-person meeting with someone they met online unless an adult is present.

But really, very little about navigating online relationships is black and white. Each person and circumstance is a bit different. There are ways to gather data about strangers that can help you figure out if they can be trusted — but none of those ways are foolproof. There are also ways to have relationships online without putting yourself at risk — but those ways will vary depending on the situation. That’s why parents need to have ongoing conversations with their teens about what they are doing and who they are meeting online.

There’s no way a teen is going to have those conversations if all they hear from you is doom and gloom. They will figure you don’t understand. They will make friends online, and they won’t tell you about it.

So talk to your teens about the Seventeen blog, especially if they read it. See what they think, and talk with them about why online dating is a bad idea for them. But instead of having that be the end of the conversation, make it the beginning.

Claire McCarthy is a primary care physician and the medical director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Martha Eliot Health Center.  She blogs at Thriving, the Boston Children’s Hospital blog, Vector, the Boston Children’s Hospital science and clinical innovation blog.

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