Online Relationships and Dating
With multi-player games, social media, and interactive video streaming services, it is becoming increasingly common for children and teens to form relationships with people they meet online. The nature of these relationships vary from friendships, to companionship, romance, and even those based on learning or business opportunities.
Despite the fact that the majority of these interactions are harmless, they are often perceived and described as risky by community and researchers alike. It’s important to note that relationships formed online are not inherently ‘bad’ or ‘dangerous’ (in fact, research shows that there are some notable benefits with regard to learning, collaboration, and connection) but they do present some risks… particularly when we throw a lack of understanding and emotionally charged decision making in the mix. Some of the key concerns when it comes to kids and teens communicating with strangers online are grooming, catfishing, or unhealthy relationships.
The risks vary by age, and the nature of online platforms and activities that kids and teens are participating in. It is not uncommon for children as young as 8 to be playing multiplayer games such as Minecraft, Roblox, or Fortnite. Whilst their ability to connect and communicate with others varies by game and in-platform controls, many children are gaming with strangers. As children approach the age of 13 and make their way across to social media platforms, they once again broaden their social network to incorporate audience members and form friendships (yes- even romantic ones) with people they have not met in person.
Australian research shows that around 38% of young people aged 8-17 years old have used the Internet to communicate with someone that they did not previously know. This study found that boys were significantly more likely than girls to engage in this behaviour.
Younger children communicating with strangers online can often be attributed to them using age-inappropriate or improperly set-up online gaming, streaming, or social media platforms. In these instances, parents are often unaware that their child has the ability to communicate with unknown players. In addition, children of lower primary school age can struggle with the concept of qualifying a ‘stranger’ online, which can result in the communication going unnoticed by parents. If someone online is being kind, complementary, or helpful, many young children will assume that the person is their friend, irrespective of their offline relationship and whether or not they have actually met them in person.
Teenagers forming relationships with people online is typically more intentional. It is relatively common for friendships to be developed through multi-player games and romantic relationships through social media platforms such as Instagram. Some pre-teen/teen social media users use platforms such as Tik Tok and Instagram to actively seek out romantic interests. In fact, this phenomenon is so common it’s been given a name- ‘sliding into the DM’s’ (that’s direct messages for anyone who isn’t fluent in Millennial).
Here are our three top insights direct from ySafe's leading cyber safety experts.
Multiplayer games and games with chat functions may not be appropriate for young players, particularly where users can’t control their gaming companions. Before allowing your child to download or play a game, refer to the ‘Features’ section of our App & Game Reviews to see what communication features are available. Where available, use in-platform controls to manage who can contact and play with your child online.
Prior to their introduction to social media, educate your child about online impersonation. It can be very difficult to verify the identity of people we meet online. Giving your child some simple steps they can follow to think critically about the identity of the people they meet online, promoting ongoing communication, and remaining engaged in your child’s online activities and relationships is essential. This Teen Vogue article provides some helpful tips for teens meeting people through social media.
Research shows that relationships formed online have a tendency to progress faster than those formed offline. Personal conversation topics and constant communication can blur the lines of healthy boundaries and respect for personal values. It’s important that we are having proactive conversations with our children about what a ‘healthy relationship’ looks like and the importance of setting personal boundaries. Some things to consider when it comes to setting boundaries in online relationships are outlined here.
If you're concerned that your child may be starting relationships online, here are the steps that we would recommend you take:
If younger children are playing multiplayer games online, in addition to using in-platform controls to manage who they can communicate with, give them explicit boundaries around who they are/aren’t allowed to chat to. This is something that could be outlined in your Digital Agreement (see our ‘Help Me’ section).
For kids/teens just starting out on social media, talk to them about the importance of using privacy settings and being selective with who they allow to follow and contact them. Avoid fear-mongering but talk to them about possibilities such as catfishing and online impersonation.
When it comes to older teens, be clear about your expectations around their behaviour, and get them to practice thinking critically about the people they engage with, as well as the possible motivations behind their connection request.
Getting actively involved in your child's online world is a non-negotiable these days but it doesn’t have to be onerous. Using parental control tools to filter content and vet the games and apps they download is a great starting point.
For younger children, set up all online accounts for them using your email address and ensure you are the password manager. As social media comes into the picture, be “friends” with or follow your child so that you can keep an eye on the people they are connecting with and who is commenting on their posts.
Avoid gaming consoles in the bedroom and for young children using mobile devices, avoid allowing them to use head-sets and keep them within the vicinity of a trusted adult for supervision. This is not about spying, but ensuring their online relationships are safe and healthy.
It is important that parents encourage children to proactively remove people that cause them anxiety or stress in the online world. Each game or social media platform has a report and block feature for users to report people who behave inappropriately. If your child is subject to serious threats, intimidation or anything illegal you can also report the issue to the office of the eSafety Commissioner at esafety.gov.au.
Some children spend up to 8-hours a day on devices! Just as you may commonly enquire about what happened at school that day, it’s important to ask about kids what is happening in their online world. Integrating these questions into your family discussions can prove extremely valuable, as these micro conversations signify your interest and support of their online lives.
As a parent it is completely natural to feel at times that the online world is overwhelming. Please know that you are not expected to know everything all the time (it’s mission impossible!), but it is helpful to know about a handful of legitimate places you can quickly go to, to seek help and who can point you in the right direction if needed.
Firstly, always report any issues to the social media platform or game itself. It’s important for them be aware of inappropriate activity, and to allow them the opportunity to remove people or content that could cause others distress. Secondly, report serious issues to the office of the eSafety Commissioner, who can investigate or act on your child's behalf if there is a serious incident that occurs.
Your child's school can also be a great resource to assist you, especially if your child is having problems with real life friendships as a result of the online environment. Remember, they are there to partner with you to try and resolve problems.
eHeadspace and Kids Helpline are also a great resource, and of course please reach out to us at ySafe for advice on concerns you have.
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