How to Solve the Problem of Student Online Relationships

When I first studied the data on Generation Z and their habits, I was surprised to see that teen sex has decreased over the last ten years. In fact, fewer teens are engaging in sexual activity than teens in my generation back in the 1970s.

When I paused to consider why this is—I slowly understood what was happening.

We Never Met in Person 

More and more teens are dating online. In fact, some will date for months and never meet the other person—in person. Generation Z has grown up online and is redefining dating. The new normal is—people meet on an app, or a video game and begin to see all they have in common. It’s not hard with smart technology. Their interaction may evolve to meeting on Skype or FaceTime, but it’s all virtual.

“Liking someone’s Instagram is the modern-day equivalent of smiling at them across a crowded room. Every online service eventually becomes a chatroom—be it TikTok, Fortnite or any of the other countless distractions that allow people to connect” writes Christopher Mims of the Wall Street Journal.

“They might sound unusual: online relationships that bloom, reach a fever pitch of teenage intensity and—possibly—even wither before the two parties ever meet. But they’re becoming more common than ever. Ask any teenager—if they haven’t been in a relationship like this themselves, they can probably name friends who have.”

Nadia and Daniel are two high school seniors I know who “dated” for a year and spent all of an hour and a half together. Then—they broke up. One advantage is if you’ve only connected online, it’s easier to break up. In fact, you can “ghost” your partner and just fail to show up for any more interaction.

Is This a Problem?

So, what’s the big problem with this? Many people are saying today:

“We just need to get used to this. It’s a younger generation’s way to relate to each other. Older folks should stop demanding they learn old-fashioned etiquette or common courtesies. They’ve got their own way of interacting.”

I am sure there is a kernel of truth in this notion.

It’s certainly one way to deal with two demographic trends: earlier puberty and later marriage. Young adults can just connect on-line, and nobody gets pregnant. “So you have a period of life of 15 to 20 years where people have to manage their sexual, romantic and intimate needs in ways that are more flexible than they used to be, and young people are experimenting with how to handle that,” says Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families.

The problem is—we all still desire people skills that are difficult to develop online.

In interviews I had with high school and college students, they communicate that they still want relational skills in the person they are dating. In the vast majority of these interviews they place it as one of five top qualities they desire in a friend or partner. Most often, receiving empathy from someone else topped the list.

Yet so far, it appears it is very difficult to build empathy on a screen. It happens much more naturally face to face with people. The sociology department at the University of Michigan provides data on college students. During the first decade of the 21st century, as the cell phone became ubiquitous and the smart phone was introduced into mainstream life, empathy dropped 40 percent. That’s a tangible decrease. At the same time, impulsivity continued to rise. That’s not a good combination. Further, The Washington Post reminds us our careers will also require interpersonal skills:

  1. At some point in our careers, we will need to rely on our relationships with others. Who is going to go out of their way for someone who’s never taken interest in them?
  2. Collaboration wins the day in getting things done. If you are blind to the needs and point of view of other teammates, you too will fail. We’re all in this together.
  3. You may not always be right! Someone else may actually have a good idea or reason to do things a certain way. If your mind is a lockout, you’ll never grow.

The Bottom Line

At least for now, we cannot let our students opt for the easier, lazier way to interact with each other or with adult leaders. If they want empathy from others, they need to develop it in themselves. If future relationships are going to work—in our homes, at our workplace and in our neighborhoods—we need to teach people skills. We cannot assume they naturally develop through the screen time they’re getting. “The internet and online communication is the window into your world—but real life, in person communication—is the door,” writes Rasheed Ogunlaru. So, here are some initial steps I recommend:

1. Find a place to add social emotional learning (SEL), and specifically relational skills, in your time with students. You can start here with Habitudes for Social & Emotional Learning.

2. As you build young leaders, make relationships part of your training. Students with influence set the pace for their peers. Let’s model people skills for others.

3. Let’s empower them to be just as savvy offline as they are online. Encourage students to balance their time between screens and face to face relationships.

Ralph Nichols once said, “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood.” While working for John C. Maxwell, he taught me, “Relational skills are the most important abilities in leadership.” Let’s build these in the next generation.

How to Solve the Problem of Student Online Relationships