Listen: Dr Justin Coulson chats to Katrina Roe about young love in the smartphone age.
If you were born any time before 1980, you’ll remember the days when talking on the phone with a high school love interest was hard work.
First, you needed to pre-plan an agreed time to call.
Then, you had to get past the parental gateway: sweating by the third ring of the phone; wondering if it would be picked up by a mum, dad or sibling; asking permission to speak to your beau.
Next – if you were in the ancient era of wall phones – you had to stretch the curly cord as far as it would go, into a hallway or another room, and shut the door to try and get privacy. And then there was the minefield of multiple phones in the house: would your call be secretly snooped on by a nosy parent or sister?
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Fast forward to 2017, and teenagers have never had it so easy. With ipad in bedroom or smartphone in pocket, they are never more than a text, call, ‘Snap’ or Instagram-like away from the one they love—and if they want, it can all be done in secret. It’s definitely changed the way young love develops, but is it good for them?
Family relationships expert Dr Justin Coulson believes it raises real concerns.
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Young Love by Digital Device
One of the biggest problems Dr Coulson sees with young love flourishing by digital connection, is the lack of parental supervision. That’s great if you’re a teenager, but troubling if you’re a parent.
“Kids don’t have to have any kind of involvement whatsoever with parents anymore,” Dr Coulson said. “There isn’t that, ‘I might have to talk to the mum or the dad, what would I do then?’”
“They are quite literally going to bed with their phones, and going to bed with their romantic interest.”
Parents are finding out their teens have a girlfriend or boyfriend long after the relationship has developed, and have no control over the amount of contact their young lovebirds have.
And the ability of teens to connect to the object of their affections in the most intimate of places – in bed – is also a concern, with more potential for sexualised conversations.
“Our kids can go to bed with their girlfriend or boyfriend now, and they wake up with their girlfriend or boyfriend,” Dr Coulson said. “If parents aren’t closing down devices and putting them [away] overnight, they are quite literally going to bed with their phones, and going to bed with their romantic interest. Which poses a whole lot of challenges for parents who want to keep their kids safe.”
Three Tips for Parents of In-Love-Teens
At the same time as teenagers are developing love interests, they’re also in a stage of life when they’re wanting to pull away from their parents. But it’s not all bad news. Parents can still have some level of influence with the following strategies:
1 – Do What it Takes to Remain Close With Your Kids
Working to maintain a close relationship with your teenagers is all-important. Cracking down on their choices like a dictator will only push them away.
“Stay close to your kids,” Dr Coulson says. “And when they don’t want to talk to you, let them know that’s OK, but you just want to be involved in their lives, because you’ve been on this planet for two or three decades more, and you might not know what they know—but you ‘know stuff’.
“The more we try to control them, look over their shoulder…and know everything that’s going on, the more they hide from us.”
“When you’re a teenager…all of your feelings and emotions are more intense. As parents, when we [try to restrict] our kids, if the relationship isn’t right, then it’s just water off a duck’s back, in fact quite often it pushes the unwanted behaviour underground.”
Remaining close to your teen will enable you to gently offer advice at appropriate times.
“If we can keep the relationship tight, and close, and trusting, we can sometimes say to our kids, ‘It’s important to have space to let the relationship breathe. It’s important to date other people. It’s important to not be absolutely besotted and committed. It’s important to not have to feel like you’re on call all day every day.’
2 – Give Your Teens Space and Freedom
Giving freedom to teenagers is of the hardest steps for some parents, especially those who have monitored and influenced their childrens’ every move in younger years.
“As hard as this is, we need to give them some autonomy,” Dr Coulson says. “Research shows is that the more we try to control them and look over their shoulder and ask them questions and know everything that’s going on, the more they hide from us.
“So we’ve got this battle where we’re trying to keep them close, but trying not to tell them what to do, how, when and why.”
3 – Let Them Know You’re Always There for Them
It’s crucial to create an environment where your teenagers feel safe to share what is happening in their lives, without fear of judgment or criticism.
“We need to let them know that if anything ever does happen that they’ve decided not to tell us about…we’ll be sad that they haven’t told us, but when they need us we’ll always be there for them,” Dr Coulson suggests. “[Let them know] we’ll always be supportive, be there to encourage them and help them.
“Sometimes kids won’t come to us when things are getting serious because they’re worried they’re going to get in trouble. They need to know [that] we just want to help them.”