My high school relationship class is in full swing having already completed 7 of our 13 sessions. I truly love my job teaching kids about healthy relationships, and I love this class. They are not easy by any means. They are outspoken and they have a lot to say. They are truthful and they are sincere ... and they are seriously challenged by the complexities of their relationships. This class is made up of sophomores, juniors and seniors. Some of them think they are Casanovas and some still apparently think the opposite sex has cooties. Two of my students are pregnant.
This week we are discussing how to recognize the red flags of unhealthy relationship behavior. And we are discussing the right way to break-up. I am asking them what they think are the worst ways to break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. The discussion is lively and animated. I let the exchange develop and then I summarize. There are lots of poor break-up choices that they fail to mention. We return to my Powerpoint presentation and I begin to list some relationship don’ts:
“Poor break-up choice number one,” I say “Do not break-up with your boyfriend or girlfriend by text message or on Facebook.” The class suddenly quiets, an uncomfortable quiet. The students are turning toward each other with an unmistakable look of guilt and amusement. They start to giggle and laugh. I suddenly get it.
“You all think it’s okay to break-up with someone online or by text, don’t you?” I accuse. “Who has used their social media to break up with someone?” I ask. One hand goes up and others continue to laugh and exclaim.
The girl who raised her hand says: “Yeah, well, my boyfriend first asked me out on Facebook. Seems like I should be able to end it that way, too!”
“How many of you have no problem breaking up with someone online?” They all raise their hands.
One student says, “I would send a [private] message, I wouldn’t do it in a status!” This is apparently the most mercy he can muster.
Here is the moment that I come to terms with our times -- the etiquette of relationships has changed, probably irreversibly, at the hands of social media. The new Seventeen magazine/Facebook survey bears this out. Seventeen magazine and Facebook teamed up to survey 10,000 teens, boys and girls aged 16 to 21, to uncover how relationships have changed since the advent of Facebook and other social media. This study indicates that 10% of the survey respondents used Facebook to break up with someone. Another Facebook poll discovered that 21% would use Facebook to break-up and 25% found out their relationship was over via a Facebook status. Now that teens are falling in love, courting (can we even still use that word?) and breaking-up on Facebook, the findings of these studies suggest that those of us trying to help teens navigate the relationship minefield might need to look at and talk about healthy relationships differently.
For example, according to my class, a typical online break-up might go something like this — the person initiating the break-up, the Dumper, let’s say in this case a boy, sends the bad news via a text message (“Im breaking up w u. Its ovr.”) Then he goes onto Facebook and changes his relationship status to “single.” Then the person who receives the text message, the Dumpee, takes to her Facebook page and voices her dissent with a status update — “You were wrong to end things that way. You know who you are. I was over you anyhow!” This (“you know who you are”) is an attempt at discretion, when in reality everybody knows the target of the status update. So friends begin to chime in with comments. First her friends --
“I always told you he was a jerk.”
“He did that to me, too, Girl. U r better off without him.”
“If you weren’t foolin’ around on My Boy, he wouldn’t have dropped you.”
And so it goes. You’d think that the Dumper would likely not be privy to this ongoing conversation because the Dumpee would “unfriend” him. But no, according to the Seventeen magazine/Facebook study, 73% of teens keep their ex-boyfriends and girlfriends in their circle of “friends,” perhaps for the very purpose of engaging in this kind of post-break-up exchange.
For adults and parents, these kind of exchanges seem so impersonal and so insensitive. And they are so mortifyingly public. But for many teens, who are so connected and accustomed to communicating with peers online, this is a natural flow from the way they connect with each other. A University of Virginia study found that the way teens interact on their Facebook and MySpace pages are “more similar than different” from their face-to-face relationships. UVA psychology professor Amori Yee Mikam discovered through the study that the teens who had positive offline friendships were able to use social media to enhance their relationships. Conversely, kids whose face-to-face relationships lacked positivity were more likely to use negative actions like posting insults, threats and inappropriate photos online. Though this study indicates that teens who have sound and positive social skills in real life extend them to their social media, it also implies that kids who are likely to mishandle their relationships offline will likely do more of the same on Facebook. In both cases, the movement between online and offline activity is increasingly seamless and consistent.
The Seventeen magazine/Facebook study also uncovered some interesting gender differences. Girls are significantly more likely than boys to decide not to date someone based on their Facebook profile (43% vs. 33%). Since 60% of respondents check their crush’s profile at least once a day and 40% admit they check it multiple times a day, it appears that girls might be going back to a new love interest’s profile page to see if he measures up, while boys just go to admire and get to know the new object of their desire.
Boys and girls also use their relationship statuses differently. Boy’s are more private about their status than girls and are less motivated to state whether or not they are “in a relationship.” Seventeen percent of boys don’t share their relationship status, compared to just 12% of girls. More boys felt that the relationship status was “unnecessary,” while girls were much more likely to find declaring their relationship status “exciting.”
In all, these findings show a shift in venue and technique, but not so much a change in mind set. Teens now have these handy technological tools for interaction and communication, but the propensity for adolescent lapses in judgment and misalignment of intentions are the same. We are seeing the adolescent tendency toward impulsively painfully and tragically reflected online with the rash of bullying incidents, college admission denials due to Facebook foibles , and ill-fated meet-ups with adults posing as peers. And so our talks about relationship etiquette are needed more than ever. Those talks should incorporate our kids’ new concept of “friends;” their preference for texting over talking; and their need to chronicle their lives publicly online. But we must still inform our teens that they need to think before they act -- that “doing unto others as you would have them do onto you” is still a mighty powerful measure, and that honesty and discretion are enduring and valuable virtues. You can also tell them over and over to be careful because what they put online is a permanent record and cannot be taken back. But they don’t seem to really care. They don’t yet know that later on they will be mortified by their own past romantic choices. But, God bless ‘em, they will soon enough!
Gina is the author of 24 Things You can Do With Social Media to Help get Into College, also blogs at Think Act Parent and Tortured By Teenagers.
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