Monday, October 26, 2015

Teenage Romance in the Digital Age

Those of us in our late 30's are the last generation who got through our high school years without social media. I still remember coming home exhausted from regional Jewish youth group events on a Sunday evening only to pick up the phone and make long-distance calls to the out-of-town friends I had just hung out with over the weekend. It was only a little more than twenty years ago that high school teens used the phone to communicate with their significant others because there no one had email yet. Everything is different for teens today. In my recent technology column in the Detroit Jewish News, I wrote about how social media has changed teenage romance today. Here's the article:

Teenage Romance and Social Media: What Are Teens Up To Online?

It wasn’t too long ago that teenage romance meant passing private folded notepaper in school classes, writing love letters and mailing them in actual envelopes with stamps, and waiting your turn to use the family’s landline telephone to call the object of your affection. When it comes to teenage romance today, much has changed in a short time.

A recent Pew Research Study looks at how digital tools and social media platforms have been fully integrated into American teenagers’ dating and romantic practices. As to how this affects the Jewish community, Jewish communal leaders who have long been concerned about dating habits of Jewish teens for the sake of Jewish continuity will be able to learn a lot from this study.

Over 1,000 teens in the U.S. ages 13 to 17 were surveyed by Pew and more than a third of these teens reported that they are currently dating someone or have dated someone in the past. However, only one quarter of them have met a significant other online. This means that while adult Americans are using online dating websites, like JDate, to find romantic matches, teens are still resorting to traditional methods for finding romantic partners. However, as the Pew study discovered these teens are using social media at an increasing rate when it comes to flirting, asking out, connecting and breaking up.

Jewish men and women who came of age in the 80s and 90s and were involved in Jewish youth group programs that extended beyond the Metro Detroit area will remember that the only option to correspond with significant others besides sending letters through the mail was the long-distance phone call. Those expensive telephone bills, however, are a thing of the past. Today's teens who found love at youth group conventions, summer camps or group trips to Israel have social media to maintain these relationships.

The study found that 59% of these teens, including 65% of boys and 52% of girls, report that social media makes them feel more connected to what’s happening in their significant other’s life. Almost half of the teens said that social media -- including Facebook and other networking sites, offers a place for them to show how much they care about their significant other.
50% of boys and 37% of girls surveyed said that social media helps them feel emotionally closer to their significant other and 27% of total respondents say social media makes them feel jealous or unsure about their relationship.

Much more than half of the teens in the Pew survey said that, regardless of their relationship history, they have flirted or talked to someone in person to let them know they are interested and half of them have let someone know they were interested in them romantically by friending them on Facebook or another social media site.

Historically, it was much more difficult for teens to publicly express their attraction to another teen, however, as social media has grown in popularity with this age group, more teens have expressed their attraction by liking, commenting or otherwise interacting with their crush on social media, the study shows. "Fully 37% of teens with relationship experience have used social media to let their partner know how much they like them in a way that was visible to other people in their network. And 47% of teen daters say social media makes them feel like they have a place to show how much they care about their boyfriend, girlfriend or significant other."

Like many adults, however, these teens are equally concerned that social media allows too many people to be involved in their personal business. Some 69% of teen social media users with dating experience agree that too many people can see what’s happening in their relationship on social media.

“Digital platforms are powerful tools for teens for flirting, wooing, connecting with and even showing off a romantic partner,” said Amanda Lenhart, Associate Director for Research at the Pew Research Center and the lead author on this report. “But even as teens enjoy greater closeness with partners and a chance to display their relationships for others to see, mobile and social media can also be tools for jealousy, meddling and even troubling behavior.”

The study also revealed that the most socially acceptable way and the most common way to break up with someone is by having an in-person conversation, though texting – one of the least acceptable ways to break up with someone – is still quite common. Indeed, 62% of teens with relationship experience have broken up with someone in person, and 47% have been broken up with through an in-person discussion. Yet 27% of teens with relationship experience have broken up with someone via text message, and 31% have been broken up with in this way.

This study should prove an interesting and perhaps even eye-opening study for many parents of teens and pre-teens. The picture it paints of teens using the communications tools of the Digital Age in their romantic relationships, for better and for worse, will also be beneficial to better understanding Jewish teens for their parents and Jewish communal professionals working with this demographic in youth groups and Jewish summer camps.

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