Online Relationships: The Risks, the Benefits, and How to Help Your Teen

Posted by on March 15, 2024

You don’t need us to tell you that the internet has changed everything … including the way we date. With teens being particularly tech savvy, curious and socially connected, online relationships are pretty much inevitable. In a way, online dating is a natural by-product of being a teenager in this era; it’s the equivalent of having your friend pass a crumpled piece of paper to your crush during class. It’s a rite of passage. 

In fact, just like we used to flirt through our friends, often without talking to our love interest face-to-face, teens can now date without meeting “IRL” (that means “in real life”, by the way, and is the extent of my online lingo). However, teens also develop deeper online relationships, which sometimes, but not always, transition to in-person. On top of this, teens often talk to multiple love interests online at the same time, and this is somewhat expected by their peers! 

As a parent, all of this can sound confusing, intimidating and downright scary. Online relationships are a shift in the usual way of building connections with others. Connecting online  introduces unique risks and considerations. However, it isn’t all doom and gloom. Online relationships also have unique benefits and can be navigated in healthy ways if we take the right approach.


The Benefits of Online Relationships 

One of the biggest benefits of online relationships for teens is that it allows them to connect with a wider range of people. Especially for teens who struggle with shyness or social anxiety, the online world offers the opportunity to experience belonging when it may be more challenging in traditional in-person social arenas like school.

Online relationships allow teens to connect on specific interests and creative hobbies. Your teen is into crocheting anime characters? There’s almost certainly an online community for that! There are also online spaces for games and activities that allow teens to connect in a livelier way. 

Even better, teens are using the internet to learn positive information about sex and relationships like how to engage in safer sex. 


The Concerns

Teens are naturally curious about relationships and sex and are going to explore it in whatever medium is available to them. The problem with the online world is that sexual exploration can be potentially dangerous, as sexual predators and lots of explicit materials exist there too. Online relationships also increase the risks of cyberbullying and abusive behaviour from a potential partner.

While online relationships provide new opportunities for connection, we also want to make sure there is balance so that our teens are developing the communication skills they need for “IRL” relationships. Teens focusing only on online relationships may be avoiding in-person connections due to anxiety. Relying solely on online forms of connection can reduce the chances to develop these skills and can negatively impact mental health. 


How To Support Your Teen

If online relationships are inevitable, how can you support your teen with navigating them in a healthy way? Try these approaches to show your teen that you are still there for them no matter where their relationship is taking place: 

  1. Encourage positive communication skills: Just because relationships have moved online doesn’t mean the same communication skills don’t apply. Talk to your teen about how to resolve conflict, actively listen and show empathy to others. These skills are crucial no matter how you engage in relationships.  
  2. Discuss healthy boundaries: Because online communication is constant, it presents a higher risk of coercive and controlling behaviour. It is important to talk to teens about what coercion in online relationships looks like. This can come in the form of expecting constant communication, sending rude messages or spreading rumours. Teens should learn how to assertively place limits on what discussions they are willing to engage in online, just like they do in their in-person relationships.  
  3. Talk openly about safe sex online: A conversation about safe sex online should include an understanding of the risks of sharing images and videos, and how they could end up in the wrong hands or on the wrong websites. Teens should never feel pressured to send or receive sexual images. If they do, then this isn’t a true loving relationship. Talk to your teens about sexually explicit material online and how this is not a realistic depiction of what sex in relationships really looks like. 
  4. Set limits on the screen: While this can be difficult, it’s important for teens to know that there should be a balance between online relationships and in-person activities. Encourage your teens to engage in their hobbies like sports and creative activities. Establish phone-free family time that is realistic and manageable – like at the dinner table. If your teen has a hard time finding balance, inquire about whether your teen is using online relationships to mask an underlying struggle with social anxiety or in-person bullying. To ensure online safety, you can normalize “check-in” times where you are able to look at your teen’s phone to check-in about the sites and apps they are using. 
  5. Support sharing: If you want to keep the lines of communication open with your teen, you need to support open sharing. This means being there for them in a loving way when they want to talk about how hurt they are by an online relationship that just ended. Though it might be different from the way we experienced relationships in our time, being there for them through these hard times will make it easier for teens to open up in the future.  


The world of online relationships can be daunting, but with the right approach and support, they aren’t all bad and can even bring benefits to your teen. Topics like communication skills, boundaries and social anxiety are all things that can be discussed in therapy. If you want help supporting your teen with their online relationships, we at the Toronto Counselling Centre for Teens are here for your family. 

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