Adolescence is a time of incredibly physical, social and emotional growth, and peer relationships – especially romantic ones – are a major social focus for many youth. Understanding the role social and digital media play in these romantic relationships is critical, given how deeply enmeshed these technology tools are in lives of American youth and how rapidly these platforms and devices change.
This study reveals that the digital realm is one part of a broader universe in which teens meet, date and break up with romantic partners. Online spaces are used infrequently for meeting romantic partners, but play a major role in how teens flirt, woo and communicate with potential and current flames.
This report examines American teens’ digital romantic practices. It covers the results of a national Pew Research Center survey of teens ages 13 to 17; throughout the report, the word “teens” refers to those in that age bracket, unless otherwise specified. The survey was conducted online from Sept. 25 through Oct. 9, 2014, and Feb. 10 through March 16, 2015; 16 online and in-person focus groups with teens were conducted in April 2014 and November 2014. The main findings from this research include:
Relatively few American teens have met a romantic partner online
Overall, 35% of American teens ages 13 to 17 have ever dated, hooked up with or been otherwise romantically involved with another person,1 and 18% are currently in a romantic relationship. Though 57% of teens have begun friendships in a digital space, teens are far less likely to have embarked on a romantic relationship that started online. A majority of teens with dating experience (76%) say they have only dated people they met via offline methods. One-quarter (24%) of teen “daters” or roughly 8% of all teens have dated or hooked up with someone they first met online. Of those who have met a partner online, the majority met on social media sites, and the bulk of them met on Facebook.
Social media is a top venue for flirting
While most teen romantic relationships do not start online, technology is a major vehicle for flirting and expressing interest in a potential partner. Along with in-person flirting, teens often use social media to like, comment, “friend” or joke around with someone on whom they have a crush. Among all teens:
- 55% of all teens ages 13 to 17 have flirted or talked to someone in person to let them know they are interested.
- 50% of teens have let someone know they were interested in them romantically by friending them on Facebook or another social media site.
- 47% have expressed their attraction by liking, commenting or otherwise interacting with that person on social media.
- 46% have shared something funny or interesting with their romantic interest online
- 31% sent them flirtatious messages.
- 11% have made them a music playlist.
- 10% have sent flirty or sexy pictures or videos of themselves.2
- 7% have made a video for them.
Digital flirting has “entry-level” and more sophisticated elements for teens, depending on the nature of the relationship and their experience with virtual flirting strategies
Each of the flirting behaviors measured in the survey is more common among teens with previous dating experience than among those who have never dated before. But while some of these behaviors are at least relatively common among dating neophytes, others are almost entirely engaged in by teens with prior relationship experience.
When it comes to “entry-level” flirting, teens who have never been in a romantic relationship are most comfortable letting someone know that they are interested in them romantically using the following approaches:
- Flirting or talking to them in person: 39% of teens without dating experience have done this.
- Friending them or taking part in general interactions on social media: Roughly one-third (37%) of teens without dating experience have friended someone they are interested in romantically and a similar 34% have liked, commented on a post or otherwise interacted with a crush on social media.
- Sharing funny or interesting things with them online. Some 31% of teens without dating experience have done this.
On the other hand, more advanced and sometimes overtly sexually suggestive online behaviors are most often exhibited by teens who have prior experience in romantic relationships:
- Fully 63% of teens with dating experience have sent flirtatious messages to someone they were interested in; just 14% of teens without dating experience have done so.
- 23% of teens with dating experience have sent sexy or flirty pictures or videos to someone they were interested in, compared with just 2% of teens without dating experience.
Girls are more likely to be targets of uncomfortable flirting tactics
Not all flirting behavior is appreciated or appropriate. One-quarter (25%) of all teens have unfriended or blocked someone on social media because that person was flirting in a way that made them uncomfortable.
Just as adult women are often subject to more frequent and intense harassment online, teen girls are substantially more likely than boys to experience uncomfortable flirting within social media environments. Fully 35% of all teen girls have had to block or unfriend someone who was flirting in a way that made them uncomfortable, double the 16% of boys who have taken this step.
Social media helps teen daters to feel closer to their romantic partner, but also feeds jealousy and uncertainty
Many teens in relationships view social media as a place where they can feel more connected with the daily events in their significant other’s life, share emotional connections, and let their significant other know they care. At the same time, teens’ use of social media sites can also lead to feelings of jealousy or uncertainty about the stability of their relationships. However, even teens who indicate that social media has played a role in their relationship (whether for good or for bad) tend to feel that its role is relatively modest in the grand scheme of things.
Among teen social media users with relationship experience (30% of the overall population of those ages 13 to 17):
- 59% say social media makes them feel more connected to what’s happening in their significant other’s life; 15% indicate that it makes them feel “a lot” more connected.
- 47% say social media offers a place for them to show how much they care about their significant other; 12% feel this way “a lot.”
- 44% say social media helps them feel emotionally closer to their significant other, with 10% feeling that way “a lot.”
- 27% say social media makes them feel jealous or unsure about their relationship, with 7% feeling this way “a lot.”
Boys are a bit more likely than girls to view social media as a space for emotional and logistical connection with their significant other
Among teens ages 13 to 17 who use social media and have some relationship experience:
- 65% of boys say social media makes them feel more connected with what’s happening in their significant other’s life (compared with 52% of girls). Some 16% of these boys report that these platforms make them feel “a lot” more connected.
- 50% of boys say social media makes them feel more emotionally connected with their significant other (compared with 37% of girls). Some 13% of boys feel “a lot” more emotionally close.
Teen daters like being able to publicly demonstrate their affection and show support for others’ romantic relationships. Yet they also find it allows too many people to be involved in their personal business
For some teens, social media is a space where they can display their relationship to others by publicly expressing their affection on the platform. More than a third (37%) of teens with relationship experience (also called “teen daters” throughout this report) have used social media to let their partner know how much they like them in a way that was visible to other people in their network. As noted above, teen daters say social media makes them feel like they have a place to show how much they care about their boyfriend, girlfriend or significant other. A bit less than half of teens (47%) say they feel this way about social media.
Teens also use social media to express public support or approval of others’ romantic relationships. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of teens with dating experience have posted or liked something on social media as a way to indicate their support of one of their friends’ relationships. Girls are especially likely to support friends’ relationships on social media: 71% of girls with dating experience have done so, compared with 57% of boys.
But even as they use social media to show affection, display their relationships and support their friends’ relationships, many teen daters also express annoyance at the public nature of their own romantic partnerships on social media. Some 69% of teen social media users with dating experience agree that too many people can see what’s happening in their relationship on social media; 16% of this group “strongly” agrees.
Many teens in romantic relationships expect daily communication with their significant other
Most teens in romantic relationships assume that they and their partner will check in with each other with great regularity throughout the day.
- Overall, 85% of teens in a romantic relationship expect to hear from their partner or significant other at least once a day, if not more often.
- 11% expect to hear from their partner hourly.
- 35% expect to hear something every few hours.
- 38% expect to hear from their significant other once a day.
When asked about their partner’s expectations for their own communication, a similar pattern emerges.
- 88% of teens in romantic relationships say their partner expects to hear from them at least once a day.
- 15% say they are expected to check in hourly.
- 38% are expected to do so every few hours.
- 35% are expected to do so once a day.
Texting, voice calls and in-person hanging out are the main ways teens spend time with their significant others
When it comes to spending time with a significant other, teens say texting is the top method, but phone calling and in-person time mix with other digital means for staying in touch. Asked how often they spent time with their current or former boyfriend, girlfriend or significant other on particular platforms, teen daters told us they use:
- Text messaging – 92% of teens with romantic relationship experience have spent time text messaging with their partner at least occasionally.
- Talking on the phone – 87% have spent time talking on the phone with their significant other.
- Being together in person – 86% have spent time together in person, outside of school hours.
- Social media – 70% have spent time together posting on social media sites.
- Instant or online messaging – 69% have spent time with their significant other using instant or online messaging.
- Video chat – 55% say they have spent time with their partner video chatting.
- Messaging apps – 49% have used messaging apps to stay connected to their partner.
- Email – 37% have used email to spend time with a significant other.
- Talk while playing video games – 31% talk with their partner while playing video games together.
Teens consider the text message breakup to be socially undesirable, but a sizeable number of teens with relationship experience have been broken up with — or have broken up with others — using text messaging
The most socially acceptable way to break up with someone is by having an in-person conversation, and these conversations are the most common way that breakups occur in a “real-world” setting. While most teens rate an in-person talk as the most acceptable way to break up with someone, some 62% of teens with relationship experience have broken up with someone in person, and 47% have been broken up with through an in-person discussion.
Text messaging – which is widely viewed as one of the least acceptable ways of breaking up with someone – is more common in the context of actual relationships than its perceived acceptability might indicate. Some 27% of teens with relationship experience have broken up with someone via text message, 31% have been broken up with in this way.
Phone calls, which are seen as the second-most acceptable way of breaking up with someone, are just as common as a breakup text; 29% of teens with relationship experience have broken up with someone over the phone, and 27% have been broken up with in this way.
And breakups through social media (which, like texts, are also viewed as having low levels of acceptability) are also relatively common – 18% of teens with dating experience have experienced or initiated a breakup by sending a private social media message, changing their relationship status on Facebook or posting a status update.
Relatively small numbers of teen daters engage in potentially controlling or harmful digital behavior to a partner or ex-partner
Dating isn’t always a positive experience for youth, in person or digitally. In this study, we asked teen daters about a number of things they might have done online or with a phone to someone they were dating or used to date. These behaviors fall on a spectrum of seriousness, from potentially innocuous to troubling. And most of these activities are highly dependent on context – as one person’s cute is another person’s creepy.
- 11% of teen daters have accessed a mobile or online account of current or former partner.
- 10% have modified or deleted their partner’s or ex-partner’s social media profile.
- 10% have impersonated a boyfriend, girlfriend or ex in a message.
- 8% of teens have sent embarrassing pictures of a current or former partner to someone else.
- 4% have downloaded a GPS or tracking program to a partners’ device without their knowledge.
A small share of teen daters have experienced potentially abusive or controlling behavior by a current or former partner
Beyond perpetrating potentially inappropriate or harmful behavior, teen daters also can be the recipients of –possibly more serious – controlling or potentially abusive experiences at the hands of significant others. These questions ask about nine experiences and whether they occur during a relationship and/or after a relationship ends. And like the practices our survey respondents told us they engaged in above, these behaviors and experiences are in some cases dependent on context of the interaction.
During a relationship teens are most likely to experience:
- 31% of teens with dating experience report that a current or former partner has checked up on them multiple times per day on the internet or cellphone, asking where they were, who they were with or what they were doing.
- 26% of teen daters report that their partner checked up on them during their relationship.
- 5% of teen daters report that a former partner checked up on them multiple times per day after their relationship ended.
- 21% of teen daters report that a current or former boyfriend, girlfriend or partner has read their text messages without permission.
- 18% of teen daters report such an experience during the course of their relationship.
- 3% report that a partner read their texts without permission after their relationship had ended.
- 15% of teen daters (or 5% of all teens) say a current or former partner used the internet or text messaging to pressure them to engage in sexual activity they did not want to have.
- 10% of teen daters report that this happened during a relationship.
- 5% report that a former partner did this to them after a relationship ended.
Potentially controlling and harmful behaviors teens experience both during and after a relationship with similar frequency3:
- 16% of teen daters have been required by a current or former partner to remove former girlfriends or boyfriends from their friends list on Facebook, Twitter or other social media.
- 10% of teens experience this during their relationship; 7% experience it after a breakup.
- 13% of teens with dating experience report that their current or former partner demanded that they share their passwords to email and internet accounts with them.
- And teens are about equally as likely to experience this during a relationship (7%) as after a relationship ends (5%).
- 11% of teens with relationship experience report that a current or former partner has contacted them on the internet or on their cellphone to threaten to hurt them.
- 8% of teens with dating experience have been threatened digitally by an ex.
- 4% experienced this during a relationship.
- 8% of teen daters report that a current or ex-partner used information posted on the internet against them, to harass or embarrass them.
- 4% had this happen during a relationship, and another 4% have experienced this after the relationship ended.
After a relationship ends, teens are more likely to experience:
- 22% of teens with relationship experience have had a partner use the internet or a cellphone to call them names, put them down or say really mean things to them.
- 14% of teen daters report that this happened after a relationship ended.
- 8% of teens report that a boyfriend or girlfriend had done this to them during a relationship.
- 15% of teen daters report that a current or former partner spread rumors about them using digital platforms like mobile phones or the internet.
- 13% of youth with dating experience report that this happened after a breakup;
- 2% of teen daters experienced this during a relationship.