By Rebecca Borison
In the good old days, a guy asked a girl to go steady, she wore his letterman jacket, and if they broke up, she gave it back. But now, thanks to Facebook, Snapchat and other social media, it’s a different game with different rules.
Teens are breaking up via Instagram. @cjkarl11 posted side-by-side photos—one with his girlfriend and one without—and added the trendy hashtag, #TransformationTuesday. That’s how he let his girlfriend know he was done with the relationship.
Social media creates an alternate world where teens don’t interact face-to-face. From behind the comfort of their screen, they’ll say things they wouldn’t have the courage to say out loud and in person. In a positive light, it’s a confidence booster, but it can also remove a much-needed filter. Social media encourages people to post without thinking, which can have huge implications.
“Teens growing up in the digital culture tend to suffer an empathy deficit because their communication with one another is devoid of non-verbal communication,” says JC Shakespeare, a licensed professional counselor in Austin, Texas.
“Ending a relationship is much easier when you do it through changing a Facebook status or sending a text,” he says. “It’s much easier to discount or ignore the feelings of friends or romantic partners when the other person is absent from the conversation.”
Social media detaches teens and helps them say things that they wouldn’t have the gall to say in real life. This can sometimes be a good thing, especially for teens who are on the shyer side and need help approaching their peers. But, it can also mean that teens more easily say something inappropriate, insulting, or hurtful.
“There is a certain amount of disinhibition that takes place online-—the faceless nature on online communications encourages people to say or do things that they would not do in real life,” says Diana Graber, head of Cyberwise.
“It’s all about balance,” she explains. “While it’s great to use social media to connect with people you already know in real life, it’s not smart to make new friends online. Additionally, it’s important to put down the mobile device and forge in-person relationships.”
Communicating on social media, or even via text message, can lead to misunderstandings, especially when it comes to tone. A smiley face emoticon doesn’t necessarily mean that the preceding sentence is taken as a joke.
“When things get out of hand or over-dramatized online, it’s time to talk face-to-face,” Graber advises.
Convey the message that real-life values and morals apply online, as well. This obviously goes beyond romantic relationships into all personal relationships. Make sure your teen realizes that a tweet can have the same impact as a spoken sentence.
Advise your teens to take a minute or two before posting anything on social media, just to make sure that the thoughts reflect what they really want to say. And, help your teens discern which conversations to have offline—you know, like breaking up with someone.
Rebecca Borison is a writer in New York City.