Photo by Nino Ortiz.
This is part of an FYI series on navigating digital technology and social media with young people, and a multipart roundtable on issues related to sexuality.
In this final installment of our panel discussion, we’ll get some of the best tips and strategies our contributing leaders have concerning how to help young people navigate digital technology as they begin to date.
Fuller Youth Institute: The whole process of flirting, dating, being in relationships, and the like has changed quite a bit thanks to digital tech. As you talk with teenagers about this, how do you address the issues of what is helpful and appropriate (or not) in romantic relationships online as opposed to in “real life”?
Annie Neufeld: Students will often tell me about having “conversations” with peers of the opposite gender when they really mean they were communicating by text. Ultimately during these “conversations” there are generally misunderstandings, mixed messages, and hurt feelings. I tend to tell students to make a general rule that they will not have important conversations over text. Wait to be in person or at least have conversations over the phone.
I also advise our young women to not put too much hope in “flirting” over text. Young people are so much less inhibited over text—they say and do things that they would never say or do in person. This gives our young women and men a false impression of the other person. It also creates a false sense of intimacy—it is often difficult to maintain the same kind of texted witty banter in real life…and then everything gets confusing.
Billy Jack Blankenship: I definitely think a good rule of thumb is to never argue or fight over text, and young people are often the worst about this. All you get from texts are the words—no tone of voice, facial expressions, etc. That makes it incredibly easy for miscommunications to happen, or for people to say things that they wouldn’t face-to-face or over the phone.
Annie: Sadly, it is simply part of our culture that young people are hard-wired to have difficult conversations in this manner. And why wouldn’t they? Why would you want to risk rejection face to face when you can do it over text? This is a difficult habit to break in our young people, but I think it is essential to their ability to learn what real connection feels like with someone of the opposite sex.
Billy Jack: I encourage young people that all digital conversations should lead to, or point to conversations in person. “I miss you, when can I see you next?” as opposed to “I miss you, let’s text for the next hour.” I try to model this behavior too—when my wife calls or texts I will call back and let her know that we will talk it through in person. We only text quick details. Similarly with students, if we text back and forth past a few minutes I tell them we need to talk in person—let’s set up a time to talk.
Brad Howell: We need to develop healthy habits when using digital tools to nurture relationships. There is a host of things we could discuss, but top of the list should be any activities that deny another person’s full humanness. In relationships I think this involves being mindful about whether we are using technology to try to control or manipulate other people for our own purposes.
Annie: We have to show students—even though it is so awkward, that you can actually love someone better in person through empathy and respect; your ability to have difficult conversations improves every time you have one. Getting in touch with difficult feelings doesn’t have to be scary and can point to Jesus—vulnerability is a good thing and is a window to God’s heart. As the adults in their lives we have to show them that there is something more valuable than avoiding awkwardness.
FYI: It might be helpful to note here that research has found that many young people worry about parents taking away digital privileges if kids share about negative experiences. As a result, young people “are unlikely to be the ones to bring up the subject.” It is helpful for parents to be really clear that honesty (within reasonable limits) will not be used as an opportunity to take away their privileges. The way young people incorporate digital technology into their relationships may seem foreign or unnatural to us, but it is important that our focus remains on the who rather than only the how.
 Palfrey, J., & Gasser, U. (2013). Born digital: Understanding the first generation of digital natives. Basic Books. p. 101
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