October 1, 2015

Teens, Technology and Romantic Relationships

Introduction

As teens grow and develop, the creation of peer relationships – both for friendship and romance – is a major focus of their social and personal lives. The pursuit of romantic relationships becomes increasingly important as teens mature physically and emotionally, and explore how romance factors into their emergent identities. As digital technologies like mobile phones and social media become ever-more deeply enmeshed in teens’ lives, these tools are playing a role in all types of peer relationships, including romantic attachments. As C.J. Pascoe writes in her qualitative study of youth: “Young people are at the forefront of developing, using, reworking and incorporating new media into their dating practices in ways that might be unknown, unfamiliar and sometimes even scary to adults.”4 Understanding the norms that teens are constantly developing (and revising) in relation to both changing expectations around gender roles and relationship practices, and the rapidly changing technological landscape is critical for parents, educators and policymakers.

This study examines the role of digital tools in teens’ romantic relationships – how teens meet, flirt, ask out, hang out, hook up and break up with their significant others. The structure of this report, like our previous report on teen friendships, follows the arc of a relationship, from meeting and flirting to breakups.

The study explores how many American teens ages 13 to 17 are in relationship with others and the variety of types of those relationships. It explores how teens research prospective partners and flirt with others who interest them.

The report then focuses in on teens with romantic relationship experience (either current or in the past). We refer to these teens as “teen daters” – they represent 35% of the teen population. The study then looks at how teens ask someone out, what teens share with each other online, where teens spend time together – in person or digitally – and what sort of expectations romantic partners have for communication with each other.

Social media is the focus of the next section of the report. It looks at the positives of social media and relationships, including an increased sense of connection to a partner and a chance to see another side of one’s partner’s personality. And it probes the negatives, which can include the way digital media is used to deliberately create jealousy and uncertainty. This section also examines the way teens simultaneously use social media to display and publicly “perform” affection in their relationship, but also how they feel as though their online digital network is overly involved in their romantic relationship.

Finally, it looks at breakups. What do teens consider an acceptable mode for breaking up – in person or on the phone – and then how teens really do it. After the breakup, some teens prune content from their profiles and sometimes kick their exes from their lists of social media friends and phone address books. And while a majority find that social media and its web of friends helps them feel supported after a breakup, many teens also find that breakups foment the worst of social media-based drama.

The report ends by looking at potentially controlling and harmful behavior within romantic relationships – both behaviors in which teens have participated and those they have experienced. It also makes a distinction between the experiences teens have during a relationship and the abuse they suffer after it ends.

We have also woven the voices of teens themselves throughout the report, gleaned from the conversations in a series of 16 focus groups, 12 conducted in person in three cities in November 2014 and four conducted online among a national sample of youth in April 2014.

  1. Pascoe, C.J. “Intimacy,” in Ito, M. (2010). Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. pp. 117 – 148