By Erica Rood, M.A. Ed.
Now more than ever, teens are connecting through digital technology, and their romantic relationships are being impacted. They are sexting and taking provocative selfies, plus their screens provide access to an overwhelming amount of misleading messages about what is cool, sexy, and fun.
Consider this: Sexy selfies, including “nudes,” are the new normal. There is pressure from boys, and often from other girls, to take and send sexy pictures. Girls are taking pictures of themselves in their bras and underwear, or less, and thinking nothing of it. Many share these photos without considering that they may fall into the “wrong hands,” open them up to ridicule and shame, or worse, to danger and possible blackmail.
Many parents don’t know how or when to talk with their daughters about dating in the digital age. It is new and unfamiliar territory. Parents face a challenging choice. They can set strict boundaries and rules, which will likely be broken, or they can create an environment where their daughters can safely explore relationship values, sexuality, and awareness of a healthy relationship. With the right guidance, your daughter will create her own inner guide, or moral compass. She will learn to stand up for herself and make choices that are empowering rather than defeating. She will understand how to identify a healthy relationship from one that is harmful or inappropriate.
So, how do you start?
Listen. Parents often listen with the goal of rescuing or providing an answer. Try to step back and listen from your daughter’s point of view. Step into her shoes and ask yourself, “What’s it like for her?” Without overdoing it, ask open-ended, non-judgmental questions. Even if you get no response, questions that start with, What do you think… and What if… will provoke contemplation. When you ask genuine, neutral questions and listen with an open mind, you provide space for her to process her experiences and develop her own perspective. You also gain insight into dating terms, timelines and stages, and your daughter’s developing expectations. With this insight, you can further guide her toward connecting with her values.
Stay neutral. Although your skin may crawl when your daughter responds honestly to one of your open-ended questions, don’t react. Stay calm and poised. Teenagers are much more likely to stay in uncomfortable conversations when they feel supported and heard.
Use the media to your advantage. Television shows, movies, songs, and social media are easy springboards into meaningful conversations. As you watch TV or listen to music together, ask your daughter what she thinks of the messages that are being sent. Inquire about your daughter’s opinion of how the women on TV are dressed or how they behave. Ask her to consider their motivation, the message they convey, and what would happen if they were acting or dressing in another way. Point out conflicting messages about sexuality and beauty. Help her see the truth in the confusing messages and identify the artificiality in the images.
Talk about digital pressure. When it comes to sharing inappropriate pictures, your daughter may think, if everyone else is doing it, it must be OK, even if she has an underlying sense that such behavior is not in alignment with her values. When you make her aware that you know about the digital pressures she’s facing, and help her recognize that this behavior is not in line with her values, you are validating her own inner-guide that she had been questioning. Yes, she might roll her eyes or walk away in embarrassment but by talking about it, you will have sent a powerful message that although she may be in a minority, when she does not give in to digital pressure, she is not acting crazy; she is acting wisely.
Bottom line: When it comes to dating in the digital age, girls need safe, supportive adults to help them navigate the maze of mixed messages and confusing expectations. When parents approach this delicate topic with ease and empathy, they create an environment where their daughters can discover what is important to them in a romantic relationship and how to stand strong in this sexualized, digital dating landscape.