October 1, 2015

Teens, Technology and Romantic Relationships

Chapter 5: After the Relationship: Technology and Breakups

An In-Person Talk Is Viewed as the Most Socially Acceptable Way to End a Relationship, Followed by a Phone Call. Breaking Up With Someone Using Text Messaging or Social Media Is Largely Frowned Upon

Teens have many options for how to end romantic relationships, but some ways of doing so are viewed as more socially acceptable than others. The survey asked all teens – those who have dated and those who have not – to rate various ways of breaking up with someone one on a scale of 1 to 10, where a rating of 1 indicates that the approach is “least acceptable” and a 10 indicates that the approach is “most acceptable.”

For Teens, Telling Someone in Person Is by Far the Most Socially Acceptable Way to Break UpOut of the six different options presented, telling someone in person is viewed as the most socially acceptable way of breaking up with someone by a wide margin – teens give this an average of 8.4 points on a 1-10 acceptability scale, and 78% rate it an 8 or higher. Breaking up with someone over the telephone is the second-most acceptable approach, although teens consider this a much less acceptable method than telling someone in person. Breaking up over the phone receives an average rating of 5.4 points, with 31% of teens rating it as an 8 or higher. As its comparably lower rating indicates, a substantial minority of teens find breaking up via phone call to be highly unacceptable, as 31% rate it as a 3 or lower on the 1-10 scale.

Several methods of breaking up with someone rank even lower on the social acceptability scale. These include:

  • Breaking Up in Person Is Most Socially Acceptable MethodSending them a text message: This receives an average rating of 3.4 points on a 1-10 scale, with just 12% of teens rating it an 8 or higher and 59% rating it a 3 or lower.
  • Sending them a message on a social media site: This receives an average of 2.7 points, with 8% rating it an 8 or higher and 72% rating it a 3 or lower.
  • Getting a friend to tell them for you: This receives an average of 2.7 points, with 7% rating it an 8 or higher and 69% rating it a 3 or lower.
  • Changing your status to single on a social media site: This receives an average of 2.7 points, with 7% rating it an 8 or higher and 71% rating it a 3 or lower.

Teens of all stripes (boys and girls, older teens and younger teens, whites and non-whites, those with relationship experience and those without, among others) rank these approaches in a nearly identical manner. Regardless of their demographic or other characteristics, teens view an in-person conversation as the most socially acceptable way of breaking up with someone (in every instance by a substantial margin); they view calling someone on the telephone as moderately acceptable; and they say breaking up via text message, social media or through a personal intermediary is generally unacceptable.

Teens consider the text message breakup to be socially undesirable, but a sizeable number of teens with relationship experience have been broken up with – or have broken up with others – using text messaging

Along with asking all teens (regardless of whether they have been in a romantic relationship) about the social acceptability of various ways of breaking up with someone, the survey also asked teens with romantic relationship experience about ways in which they have broken up with someone, as well as ways in which a partner has broken up with them.

Despite Being Much Less ‘Acceptable,’ Breaking Up by Text Message Is as Common as Breaking Up by Voice CallIn certain ways, these reported real-world experiences line up with teens’ general attitudes about the most socially appropriate ways to break up with someone. For example, having an in-person conversation is viewed as the most generally acceptable way to break up with someone, and these conversations are the most common way that breakups occur in a “real-world” setting. Some 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.

Similarly, phone call conversations (which are seen as the second-most acceptable way of breaking up with someone) are relatively common: 29% of teens with relationship experience have broken up with someone over the phone, and 27% have been broken up with in this way. And at the other end of the spectrum, breakups through social media (which are viewed as having low levels of acceptability) are quite uncommon—fewer than one-in-ten teens with dating experience have experienced or initiated a breakup by sending a private social media message, changing their relationship status on Facebook or posting a status update.

At the same time, text messaging – which is widely viewed as one of the least acceptable ways of breaking up with someone – is more common in the context of actual relationships than its perceived acceptability might indicate. Some 27% of teens with relationship experience have broken up with someone via text message, 31% have been broken up with in this way. That makes text message breakups as common as voice call breakups – even though voice calls are viewed as much more socially acceptable.

Finally, many relationships go out not with a bang but with a whimper – some 15% of teens with relationship experience have experienced a breakup that never ended formally, but “just drifted away.” Indeed, teens are more likely to experience this type of breakup than to experience any of the other options mentioned in the survey outside of in-person talks, voice calls and text messaging.

Demographic differences in how teens end relationships are relatively modest

Overall, there are only modest differences between different groups of teens when it comes to their experiences with breakups. Girls are a bit more likely than boys to say they have broken up with someone by sending them a private message on a social network site (10% of girls with relationship experience have done so, compared with 2% of boys), and teens ages 13 and 14 are a bit more likely than older teens to have broken up with someone by posting a status update (9% vs. 2%) or posting an image (4% vs. less than 1%).

There are also modest differences along socioeconomic lines. Teens from households with an annual income of less than $50,000 are more likely than those from higher-income households to say they have broken up with someone by text message (39% vs. 22%) as well as by changing their relationship status on Facebook (15% vs. 2%). They also are more likely to say someone has broken up with them via a private message on a social networking site (13% vs. 3%).

Teens mostly break up on the phone or in person, but sometimes deploy digital tools out of fear, immaturity or self-preservation

Summarizing the feelings of a majority of teens, a high school boy in one of our focus groups said of breaking up with someone:

“Yeah, the best way is in person. Second best way is probably on the phone. I feel like it should be in person. It’s kind of rude to do it on social media.”

But others employ other methods. One high school boy described his breakup tactics:

“Yeah, it’s just slowly drift away. Talk to other females. Hug other females, then do other stuff with other females. Text.”

One high school boy describes breaking up by text as juvenile:

“You have to have maturity. That’s like eighth grade stuff. … I’d do it in person.”

Others describe breaking up by text as way to be nonchalant, or a bit callous, even when you aren’t. As one high school boy relates:

“A text officializes it. So you show that you really don’t care, but you do care.”

A middle school boy describes why digital tools make breaking up easier:

“I think it’s easier to break up with them because … you don’t have to see them if they get sad. If you see them getting all emotional, then you’ll feel bad and be harder on yourself to break up with them.”

Another middle school boy characterizes text-based breakups as self-protective:

“I think that texting is better because you’re not really in person. Like one time I told her you’re just kind of being too clingy and it’s getting really annoying. And she like threw a book at me, so that’s why it’s probably better to do texts.”

Social media and the ability to capture and copy content make breaking up with someone via digital means tricky. As one middle school boy relates:

“For me, I broke up with a girl [I knew] on Facebook … and I broke up with her [in a text message]. And then she defriended me, but she still had the message. The messages. So I guess she got it. She copied it and posted it. She’s like, ‘I hate this guy.’ And it was me. I looked at it. I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’ Everyone was … they were like hating me.”

For some teens the breakup is a drawn-out affair, moving from public digital spaces to private ones. As one high school boy explained:

“It’s crazy. It goes from private to public and then you guys talk it out privately again. … She’ll send a text and be like why you have to do that on Twitter?”

Post-Breakup Rituals and Maintenance: Pruning Connections and Blocking Contact on Social Media and Cellphones Are Common Among Teens

For teens who experience and document the history of their romantic relationships through social media and mobile devices, the end of those relationships can leave behind a trail of digital memories in the form of messages and photos scattered across multiple platforms or the name of an ex in a cellphone address book. These digital platforms also can offer a way for exes to initiate potentially unwanted contact, or simply serve as a visible reminder of a connection that no longer exists in person.

Accordingly, teens often take steps to prune these digital connections when romantic relationships end. Among teens with romantic relationship experience:

  • 48% have removed someone they used to date from their cellphone’s address book.
  • 38% have untagged or deleted photos of themselves and a past partner on social media.
  • 37% have unfriended or blocked someone they used to be in a relationship with on social media.11
  • 30% have blocked an ex from texting them.

Girls Are More Likely Than Boys to Block Exes or to Untag or Delete Photos on Social Media From Past RelationshipsGirls are substantially more likely than boys to take these steps in the context of social media. Some 44% of girls with relationship experience have blocked or unfriended an ex on social media (compared with 31% of boys), while 46% girls have untagged or deleted photos from a previous relationship (compared with 30% of boys). By contrast, there are no gender differences when it comes to relationship pruning on cellphones – girls and boys are equally likely to have removed an ex from their phone contacts list (48% of boys and 47% of girls have done so), and to have blocked a previous partner from texting them (29% for boys, 32% for girls). Beyond these gender differences pertaining to social media, there are few other demographic differences when it comes to pruning past relationships on social media or cellphones.

Some teens prune or block former partners at the end of relationships to ease hurt feelings and to stop hurtful behaviors

Teens in our focus groups described their thinking about how to manage their social media after a breakup. A high school girl described her post-breakup social media protocol: “I delete the statuses and stuff. I’m just like this is irrelevant now.” When asked specifically about photos, she responded:

“I guess it depends. Cause like if you’re friends with the person still, that’s OK. But if you’re not, you’re like really bitter, it’s just like ‘I’m erasing you from my life.’”

A high school boy stated, “They’ve got to go. … I delete everything.” In one group, a high school boy described deleting photos of an ex as an act of respect to current and future partners. “They’ve got to go. That’s disrespect to other women.”

Other teens want to retain photos and digital mementos from a past relationship. As one high school boy stated “I’d keep them,” while another boy in a different group remarked, “I wouldn’t delete pictures just to have proof that I dated that girl.”

One high school girl related how she believes that social media makes it harder to get over a failed romantic relationship, and that sometimes seeing an ex delete old photos may motivate her to do the same:

“Social media does [make it harder to get over someone] because if I don’t want to delete them as a friend, I’m going to keep them as a friend. And me seeing their pictures … because there might be something they texted me that I can’t really delete. So me seeing their pictures and all they had and I had deleted, it may put me in a position where I throw some stuff away. Because it’s like, dang, that could have been us if he wasn’t being so petty.”

Another middle school boy explained his post-breakup practices and suggested that deleting a photo indicates a relatively high level of anger:

“I keep photos. I change their status cause you don’t want to seem like you hate this person. You don’t want to be a jerk to them. Still maybe comment on something under not dating them anymore. Just so like people still don’t think you like this person. But you’re just keeping [it] up there to be nice. So [if] the other person sees that you deleted the photo and you’re like, oh, wow, this person must really hate me now because they deleted this.”

There may be very good reasons for teens to prune or block former partners. As a high school boy related:

“Like my friend, he had just broken up with this girl. He just did it recently. But she was like … she was really commenting on every one of his pictures and just had something to say. Just like let people know that they go out. It was already known, but she just took it to the next level. … Like he’s mine. Yeah, that’s mine.”

Other teens use blocking as a form of revenge with the intent to further hurt an ex. As one high school boy explained:

“If she’s going to be vicious, you block her. … It shows block. That also will get to her.”

Some teens also use social media to have their say or tell their side of the story to their network. As one high school boy described:

“I see some girls post pictures of the boy they just broke up with and wrote a whole paragraph just like roasting them. Just like telling him all the bad things he did.”

A majority of teen daters agree that social media allows people to offer support when romantic relationships end; but some find that others are too nosy

Despite some of the challenges outlined above, a majority of teen daters view social media as a supportive place in the context of relationship breakups. Some 63% of teen social media users with relationship experience agree with the statement that “social media allows people to support you when a relationship ends,” although just 8% agree with the statement strongly.

At the same time, a substantial minority of teens do not view social media as a supportive place. Some 37% disagree with the notion that social media allows people to support them when a relationship ends, although again most do not have especially strong views – just 3% “strongly disagree” with this statement.

As noted above, girls are more likely than boys to take an active role in pruning photos from past relationships, and to block or unfriend exes. Yet boys and girls have identical views on whether social media offers a place for others to support them in the context of a romantic breakup.

Teens in our focus group told us that social media is a mixed blessing during a breakup, but offers an important place for social support that might be hard for some to receive in person. As one high school girl related:

“I think social media makes it hard after a breakup, but it can make it easier. Because sometimes I want to talk to my best friend after I break up with someone. I’ll be sad. And then they’re always there for me, and it’s easier to talk to them over social media because then they won’t see me cry or anything. So I can talk to them there.”

Other focus group teens found just the opposite – that after a breakup, people in their networks wanted to be too involved. One high school girl explained why she didn’t want support from her network after a breakup:

“No, because they always in your business. … Just trying to be nosy.”

Another girl in the same focus group said that her friends would ask “Like what happened? Why did y’all break up?” and not always because they were concerned for her emotional well-being, but “so they can maybe go jump on him or something.”

And sometimes, different friends in a teen’s network are trying to be helpful after a breakup but end up creating more drama. As a high school girl explained:

“First of all, my friends are just like, well, I’m going to go kill him for you. I’m like, no, you don’t have to do that. I mean, it’s nice that they care. But, I mean, sometimes … it depends on the friends. I have friends with a lot of different attitudes. Some of them will ask, in a way, just like a status. And just like, oh, I need to tell everybody about this, but some of them, like, they actually care and they want to make sure that everything’s OK.”

And some teens just aren’t that interested in a friend’s breakup. Said one high school girl:

“A lot of people, like, will post sad quotes on Instagram [after a breakup]. … I’m like, OK. I really don’t care. You know?”

Teens are divided on whether social media makes it hard to escape former romantic partners

For teens who document the course of their romantic relationships on social media, that documentation might make it more challenging to forget about past relationships when those relationships end. However, teens themselves are nearly evenly divided on the impact of social media when it comes to forgetting about past significant others. Some 47% of teens with relationship experience who use social media agree with the following statement: “You can’t escape people you used to date because you still see them in photos and posts on social media,” with 8% agreeing strongly. At the same time 53% of these teens disagree with this statement, 7% of them doing so strongly.

Teens of various demographic groups are divided on this question – boys and girls, younger and older teens, and lower- and higher-income teens are all evenly split on this question.

  1. 55% of all teens have unfriended or unfollowed an ex-friend, and 43% of teens have blocked a former friend. See our “Teens and Friendships” report for more data on the end of friendships.