Dating when I was a teenager was simple: If you liked someone, you hoped they would talk to you after class, or chat with you at a party, or even call you on the phone. All communications were face-to-face or at least voice-to-voice, providing context and clues about how the other person was feeling. If I talked to a boy I liked, I could tell whether he was sending out “not interested, just being polite” vibes, or “hot damn, interested” vibes, or even “not interested and not even going to pretend to be polite” (Ouch. When I was a teen, dating was simple but not easy). The same went for the boys who expressed interest in me: I could convey interested or not interested both verbally and nonverbally, and most boys got the message. And in the ’80s and ’90s, it was the boys doing the approaching, for the most part.
I’d been wondering how young people today indicate their romantic interest when so much of communication is virtual. I wondered how this might affect their social skills, especially in the romantic realm. Then I came across this new study from the Pew Research Center on teens, social media and dating, which was enlightening.
For one, young people today have a multitude of ways to contact a potential love interest: cell phones, texting, email, social media. (It makes our strategies of “oh, I just happened to be walking by the soccer field when practice let out” look kind of quaint.) But in other ways, things haven’t actually changed all that much. According to Pew, the “most common way for teenage boys to ask someone on a date is to ask a girl in person rather than via text message.” And still, even today, it’s primarily the boys doing the asking: “[N]early half (47%) of teen girls say they usually wait for someone to ask them out first, compared with only 6% of boys. Girls are also much less inclined than boys to ask someone out, whether in person (35% girls vs. 69% boys) or via text message (20% vs. 27%).”
Gender roles take a long time to change—my mother waited for boys to ask her out, rather than taking the initiative, as did I, and my sons will probably feel like they need to ask rather than wait to be asked. But still, 35% of girls were willing to ask someone out in person, which feels like progress to me.
However, the researchers did find some difference in how boys and girls are using social media to monitor their romantic interests. Boys more than girls (65% to 52%) reported that social media helps them “feel more connected with what’s happening in their significant other’s life.” Boys more than girls (50% to 37%) said that social media helped them feel more emotionally connected as well.
However, there are a few negative aspects to romance and social media, just as there for adults. Girls were twice as likely to have experienced inappropriate flirting online. Girls were slightly more likely to use social media to keep track of their romantic interests (one-third of girls to 22% of boys). Girls were also more likely to delete reminders of an ex from their social media lives after a breakup (what my friend and I used to call “launching the ‘dead to me’ protocol.”)
But the most interesting thing, to me, was the idea that things aren’t tremendously different than they were when we were teens and that they don’t seem that different (to me) from how adults today are dating. There weren’t huge differences in how frequently boys and girls expected to communicate with a romantic partner: 85% expected to hear from a boyfriend or girlfriend at least once a day, 11% expected hourly. (To those 11%, whether you’re teens or adults, good luck with that, because hourly is nuts.)
All in all, it was somewhat comforting. I still hope my boys will do most of their socializing in person rather than online, because relationships only grow when people actually spend time together. I hope they will find the courage to talk to girls one-on-one—even if it means they just happen to be walking by after soccer practice.