October 1, 2015

From heart emojis on Instagram to saying goodbye to a relationship with a text message, digital technology plays an important role in how teens seek out, maintain and end relationships. In a series of focus groups conducted by the Pew Research Center online and in cities across the U.S., over 100 teens shared with us their personal experiences with social media and romantic relationships. These are some of the key themes and responses we heard during these data-gathering sessions.

Meeting a Significant Other Online

Some 35% of teens have some type of experience in a romantic relationship, a figure that includes current and former daters, as well as those in serious and less-serious relationships. Among teens with dating experience, 76% say they have never dated someone they first met online, but one-in-four (24%) have dated or hooked up with someone they initially encountered online.

It was relatively rare for teens in our focus groups to talk about meeting romantic partners online. Some teens explained that they would not trust someone they met online because of the likelihood of misrepresentation, while others were generally distrustful of all strangers online.

You might be catfished.

High School Boy

Some girls don’t really look like they do [on] Instagram. That’s why you’ve got to meet.

High School Boy

If I don’t know them, I’m not going to, like, to talk to them.

High School Girl

But despite this general wariness, some teens did describe meeting romantic partners online. These teens often mentioned social media as a platform for meeting potential partners.

... I was dating this girl that I met through a social website that probably hardly anybody knows about. So it’s a dating website for teens. ... It’s called MeetMe. It was like, oh, what the hell. I’ll try it. And I met a girl on there and she lived up in [location]. I still talk to her, but we’re not together.

High School Boy

I just met a girl on Facebook, like, messaged her and then met her in person. That was all. I just met her.

High School Boy

I’ve met a person over Instagram, actually. ... Direct messaged them. And we talked for about a week, and then I decided he actually seems kind of chill. I’m going to give him my number. And then I took it slow, like cause meeting someone over the internet isn’t always the best idea. So if you’re going to do it, like do it very carefully.

High School Girl

How Teens Show Romantic Interest

During the focus groups, technology – and especially social media – often was described as an integral part of the courting process for teens. Half of all teens (50%) have let someone know they were interested in them romantically by friending them on Facebook or another social media site, and 47% have expressed their attraction by liking, commenting or otherwise interacting with that person on social media.

Teens also spoke about social media as an information-gathering tool that helps them find out all sorts of information about a potential partner, like whether they are dating someone or not.

Well sometimes you might use social media to see if, like, they’re going out with someone or something.

High School Boy

You want to know everything you can about them.

High School Girl

Many teens in our focus groups described flirting with a crush by liking their photos or posting a comment on their social media profile. These interactions have their own unwritten – but widely understood – rules. Everything from one’s choice of emoji to the spelling of the word “hey” can carry a deeper meaning.

When I have a crush on someone and I want them to know I go on their page and like a lot of pictures in a row.

High School Girl

On liking a crush’s photos on Instagram

Like all of them. Like, like, like, like, like, like all the pictures. You’re the right cute factor.

High School Girl

On how girls show interest on Instagram

Emojis, but the main way you’re going to know is like when they first say 'hey.' How many y’s they put on their ‘hey.’ Yeah, they do that a lot.

High School Boy

Well, if you really putting yourself out there, you could comment on their picture with a heart emoji.

High School Girl

Text messaging also is a common way for teens to flirt and express romantic interest. But for all the advantages digital communication can offer, a number of teens in these focus groups said they are more at ease when talking to the object of their affection face to face.

I usually text my crushes. ... I flirt with emojis, and I usually be myself if they don’t like me for me [... tough]. I’m very open and talk to a lot of people or talk to them face to face.

High school girl

I can only ever flirt in person and that is on [the] rare occasion when I have been gifted with super powers, clearly.

High school girl

A little bit more bold over text, because you wouldn't say certain things in person. ... You just wouldn't say certain things in, like, talking face to face with them because that might be kind of awkward. But over text, it's like, OK. Cause they're not really there.

High school girl

On talking to a crush via text message

It’s like good and bad things because, like, all those texts, you really can’t communicate the way you communicate in person. Like they can’t really hear the tone of voice. They might think that you’re saying something in some type of way.

High school boy

How Teens Communicate in a Romantic Relationship

Text messaging and talking on the phone are the top two ways that teens spend time with their romantic partners – but when it comes to daily interactions, texting is by far the dominant way teens in romantic relationships communicate: 72% do so every day, compared with 39% of teens in romantic relationships who talk on the phone daily.

Some teens in our focus groups mentioned that their communication choices often evolve with the intensity and duration of their relationships. Others mentioned how text-based communication can help them overcome the shyness they sometimes experience in person or give them time to come up with the perfect response during conversation.

Like the best thing about texting is that you can think about what you’re going to say. And if you don’t like it, you can always get rid of it until the end. With talking, you can’t really do that.

High School Girl

[In] my relationship with my boyfriend, we talk about everything, whether it’s over text messages or in person over the phone.

High school girl

If you’re like a thing or something, it’s more likely that you’re talking to them more. But text. If you just met them, it’d be weird if they called.

High school boy

I think texting kind of makes you feel closer because boys are more shy. ... But when we text, it seems like it’s so much easier for him to talk to me. So I think he says more stuff, like how he feels through text.

High School Girl

As mobile devices have made it easy to check in from a wide range of locations throughout the day, many teens now want to communicate with their romantic partner on a daily – and in some cases, hourly – basis. Indeed, 85% of teen daters expect to hear from their significant other at least once a day, and 11% expect to hear from them hourly. This issue came up frequently in our focus groups, as many teens expressed a desire (and in many cases, an expectation) that they hear from their significant other on a regular basis.

Many teens are online throughout the day on multiple platforms where their communications are visible to others, and dodging or screening communications from one’s significant other in this environment is fraught with challenges. Teens in our focus groups described how a delay by their significant other in responding to a text message or phone call can make them feel ignored or unimportant, especially when they can see on social media that their partner is online:

You’re tweeting but you can’t text me?

High school boy

It’s like, he made the status and I just texted him. Why didn’t he reply?

High school girl

On Facebook it says ‘seen,’ too, so it’s like are you avoiding me?

High School Girl

So recently, actually, like two days ago, my girlfriend actually got her phone taken away by her mom. ... So like a day or two passed by, I'm like wondering if I should text her. ... Check to see if she's looked at my Snap or whatever. Or not opened my Snap but my Snap story. Like so she's like seen it. And I saw that she liked something on Instagram. So like ... I was looking. Why didn't you text me? She got her phone taken, you'd think, you know. But she didn't. You know, so that kind of made me mad, but I didn't say anything because I didn't want to act clingy or whatever. So I just texted her.

High school boy

Teens also described other negative aspects of technology in romantic relationships, such as surveillance that leads to jealousy, as well as arguments between partners that play out publicly on social media for all to see. About a quarter – 27% – of teens with dating experience have had a partner use social media to track their whereabouts, and 27% of teens with dating experience say social media makes them feel jealous or unsure of their relationship.

If I’m in a relationship or something, my girl, she won’t check my Instagram. She’s going to check my comments and stuff. She sees, like someone commented on it two hours ago...Or somebody’s like ‘I miss you.’ [And then she asks] ‘Who is this girl?’

High school boy

On witnessing someone argue with a romantic partner on social media:

See, the thing that they did wrong is they didn’t put it in messages. They put it in comments. When somebody’s willing to fight, they bring out their problems and comments and let the whole world see and not just keep it between them. So it’s this big old nasty problem.

High school boy

On personal experience with fighting with a romantic partner

Online when I know she’s talking indirectly about me on Twitter. Like spreading our business out to the world of Twitter.

High school boy

Once you go public [with a fight], your relationship will never be the same. It’s like you’ve messed up everything. That’s the end of the relationship.

High school boy

Teens Use Social Media to Document and Display Their Romantic Relationships

Teens take a number of steps to show that they are in a romantic relationship with someone, and many of these rituals take place on social media. In our focus groups, teens spoke about the reasons why couples might showcase their relationship on social media, from seeking attention to letting others know that they are now “off the market.”

Their status. And then other times, on Instagram it says in their bio, they put like the date they started going out.

High school boy

Yeah. You need to have the padlock emoji with a heart and two people holding hands

High School Boy

I mean, 'cause like if you and then person are, like, super open and you both use Facebook a lot, then you’re going to like post pictures of yourself on Facebook. But if you’re kind of like, oh, it’s kind of a like a waste of time, then you won’t do that.

High school girl

But publicly sharing the details of one’s romantic life online is not without potential pitfalls, and many teens elect to not document their relationships in this way. In our focus groups, teens discussed some of the potential negative effects of documenting their romantic relationships on social media, which ranged from increased drama to a general loss of privacy.

69%
of teen daters who use social media agree that too many people can see what's going on in their relationship on social media.

A lot of people kind of don’t like it on social media because it doesn’t need to be on there. Cause as long as the two [people] know how they feel about each other. I feel like if you have it on social media, it’s like more drama. Because like more people ask questions and stuff like that.

High school boy

I have a lot of family on Facebook. Like my grandparents and stuff. And my grandparents always like to comment on my statuses. ... So I don’t like to make [relationships] so public.

High school girl

How Teens End Relationships

Digital communication plays a role in all aspects of teen romantic relationships, including when those relationships end. But even as text messaging and social media play a pronounced role in all other aspects of teen life, teens feel strongly that an in-person conversation -- or at worst, a phone call -- is the most socially acceptable way to break up with someone. Teens in our focus groups generally agreed that breaking up with a partner over text messaging or social media illustrates a lack of maturity on the part of the person who is ending the relationship.

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.

High school boy

On why you wouldn’t use a text message to break up with someone:

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

High school boy

I mean, I just don’t think that’s the proper way to do it. Especially, like, it’s something different if you’re doing it over direct message. Like where it’s straight to their inbox. It’s something different if you’re doing it straight over a mention with, like, a picture or something.

High school boy

27%
of teen daters have broken up with someone via text message and 31% have been broken up with in this way.

Yeah, even like a phone call. You can even call them on the phone and be like, hey, I don’t think it’s going to work. But like if you’re texting them, that’s really impersonal.

High school girl

It’s kind of frowned upon to break up over, like, media. Like you’re just going to have that right on your shoulders forever. Like, oh my God, he broke up with his ex-girlfriend over the phone.

High school boy

But even though breaking up via text message is largely frowned upon, 27% of teens with dating experience admit to breaking up with someone by text. In our focus groups, we heard from teens who have broken up with someone via text. Some said that they used text messaging because they didn’t want to see their former partner hurt, while others wished to avoid facing anger or physical retaliation. Others said that they had never broken up with someone this way themselves, but have some sympathy for people who take this approach.

I don’t know about other people, but for me, like, I personally hate hurting people and seeing them getting sad because of something I did to hurt them. So for me, I mean, I know it’s not the best thing, but usually over text I just ... I don’t have to see them get so hurt. And usually breaking up is really a hard thing for me. So it just helps me cope with that. I still feel bad about it, but usually texting is just better for me.

High school girl

A lot of people, if one person cheats or something or does something really terrible, then they both ... and he finds out, then they can just go to text. They're angry with them. It's impersonal. They don't want to talk to them. But if it's something like they're having just general relationship issues or they're not interested in each other anymore, it's way too impersonal to do it like on video or on your phone. You've got to talk to them.

High school boy

I think it’s kind of lesser and slightly disrespectful to do it through text, but I understand why, because it does take a lot to, like, go up to someone and say that you’re breaking up with them and to see their reaction. So I guess that’s why lots of people just keep it to text. They don’t have to deal with, like, seeing the person’s face when they break up with them.

High school girl

What Happens After a Breakup?

When relationships end, teens must decide how to cope with continuing exposure to their former partner on social media and other platforms. Sometimes this exposure involves old photos and other reminders of the past, and 43% of teen daters have untagged or deleted photos of themselves and a past partner on social media. Other times this exposure involves an actual link to their former partner, and 42% have unfriended or blocked someone they used to be in a relationship with on social media. Teens in our focus groups described the range of behaviors that they engage in on social media in the aftermath of a break-up.

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.

High school boy

It just depends on the reason why we broke up. If it was just because something simple, we don’t have time for each other or to hang out in person, then that’s fine. But if he’s like a cheater, like he did some pretty bad stuff, then you’re probably going to [do] that nice block on Instagram and all the other social media sites.

High school girl

On why you would take a break from social media after a breakup:

Because people come back and they’ll ask me, well, what happened? What happened? Well, I don’t want to talk about it. And they try to talk it out of me. I’m just like, I told you. I don’t want to talk about it.

High school girl

Teens in our focus groups were somewhat divided on how best to deal with social media in the aftermath of a breakup. Some elect to delete all traces of their past relationship, while others prefer to maintain at least some connection. Ultimately, many teens agreed that this choice often depends on the nature of the relationship – the more serious the relationship, the less likely teens are to unfollow someone or remove all traces of their time together.

If you had feelings for them, you would stay connected.

High school boy

I mean it sucks for me if like I’ve had a relationship that ended when I didn’t want it to, and still wish it didn’t. And so, I mean, I can still go back and look at his Facebook every once in a while, so I mean, there are perks to it.

High school girl

On staying friends on social media:

You can still make sure they’re doing OK.

High school girl

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.

High school girl

They also spoke about whether technology makes the time after a break up easier or harder:

I guess you’re constantly reminded of that other person like through seeing them on social media and seeing them with other people doing things without you, which can be hurtful.

High school girl

Many teens said they did not seek advice or help from friends via social media because they felt friends were more interested in gossip.

They’re just trying to be nosy.

High school girl

They're always in your business.

High school girl

I feel like they should keep that, like, on text message or Facebook messenger because ... then you run the risk of other people getting involved.

High school girl

However, 63% of teen daters who use social media agree that social media allows people to support them when a relationship ends, and some teens in our focus groups said they received support on the platforms.

I don’t know. 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.

High school Girl

To read more about how teens use technology in romantic relationships, read Pew Research Center's report Teens, Technology and Romantic Relationships.