Hey, Parents, Teen Dating Isn’t What It Was in the 90s

Recently I saw a notice online about a community forum that hoped to bring teens and their parents together to talk about dating and relationships. And while I don’t mean to be snarky, it made me chuckle because Teens and Dating? Newsflash: It’s 2023 and dating, as we experienced it back in the day, isn’t really a thing anymore — especially for college students. Or so I’ve been schooled by several of them I know pretty well.

So, take off your letterman sweater, Dad, and put down your Sony Walkman, Mom. Here are some things you need to know to help keep the eye rolls and “teensplaining” to a minimum:

Three phases of teen dating in 2021

First of all, banish from your brain the memories you had of dating back in high school or college when all the logistics took FOREVER and people actually had to TALK to strangers. As with everything today, the process has been streamlined and accelerated due to technology. No one is glancing across a room at a party, then spending a week gathering vital information from friends, just to ask someone out on a date.

teen couple on park bench
Teens and college students date in different ways than parents did at their age. (oneinchpunch/ Shutterstock)

Oh, and before we go any further, the word “dating” is definitely not to be used so cavalierly and should be reserved for a relationship status that has already progressed through two or three prior phases.

Today, a young person meets — or even simply just sees — a fellow young person who inspires some curiosity.

Phase One commences with Social Media Research, also known as “Stalking.” In under three minutes, enough data can be gathered to let the young person know if they even need to contemplate moving on to the next phase.

Of course, dating apps, such as Tinder and Bumble, can fast-track Phase One even more efficiently. You’ve got to hand it to the honest users whose profiles cut to the chase with statuses like “Looking for hook-ups only” or “In search of a lifelong partner.” Like someone’s profile? Direct message them and chances are a response comes back within a few hours.

Phase Two can begin if the two online personas look mutually acceptable enough to move forward. This is known as “Talking” — which is a total misnomer, as it usually just consists of reciprocated Snap Chats and texts. Phase Two can last for days or months.

Phase Three, known as “Hanging Out,” can begin if Talking goes well and the willing participants want to move on. This can occur in groups, or with just the two people involved. At this stage, parents might foolishly assume dating has commenced, but that term still should not be used, unless your teen or young adult has explicitly used it themselves first.

Of course, there are exceptions to this widespread sequence of events, as traditional “dating” still does seem to happen in a more “formal” way at schools that are considered more conservative and/or religious.

But where does this leave us, parents, when we want to discuss “dating” issues with our kids? Do concepts like courtesy, consent, and respect change at all if the terminology and timelines have been altered considerably? And how do we deal with the ambiguity of “We’re just hanging out” when we want to discuss matters like safe sex and dating violence?

Getting teens and young adults to open up and have honest dialogue about relationships has been treacherous territory for parents since forever. For the adults who grew up and dated before social media existed, it’s easy to feel somewhat alarmed about the whole topic when we keep hearing about today’s “hook-up culture.”

And for teens and young adults, there is the weirdness of easily being able to find a potential partner through social media, but a challenge to progress to meaningful face-to-face connections. Throw in our mobile and transient society where so many college kids move on to a different city after graduation. Why invest time in dating when you know a relationship has a hard expiration date looming?

Whether our kids engage in long-term relationships and use the term “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” during high school and college, or “hang out” with a series of different people, here are five basic guidelines to start a discussion with them, and to revisit as they mature and their relationships evolve.

Reminders about teen dating (from parents)

Be conscious of your social media presence and think about the kind of people you will attract with your photos and comments. With the viral aspect of social media, not all publicity is good publicity.

Be kind but honest in any and all communication, even if it’s simply a text. Don’t ghost someone after you’ve made a connection, please. And remember that social media profiles don’t truly convey the entire essence of a human being. Give people a chance.

Be careful with private details online until you know someone well enough and feel safe.

Be mindful that consensual behavior is a must at every step in a relationship. Full stop.

Be able to walk away from a relationship if you are not feeling valued and appreciated. Some deal breakers never change.

And while those of us who managed to navigate through blind dates and set-ups with total strangers can acknowledge there might be a few benefits to how it’s done today, I’d venture to guess many more of us find it a little sad our kids are missing out on the slower, more old-fashioned version of dating.

Love letters and lengthy landline phone conversations may forever be a thing of the past, but instilling in our kids an appreciation for decency, kindness and mutual respect will never go out of style.

Interested in reading more about how to help your teen with their friendships and romantic relationships? Check out the Grown and Flown book to learn more about this topic and so much more. 

grown and flown book

Your Might Also Be Interested in Reading:

Here’s How Dating Today Is Different Than in The 80s

About Marybeth Bock

Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adults and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor and freelance writer. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing - as long as iced coffee is involved. You can find her work on numerous websites and in two books. Find her on Facebook and Instagram

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