The question facing Kiara Coryatt has plagued high-school seniors for generations: How do you let a classmate—a “very cute human”—know that you have a crush on them?
The answer Coryatt settled on is vintage 2018: Go on Instagram, search for the very cute human’s profile, and privately message her a meme. “Sliding into the DMs,” as the move is generally called among the Insta-savvy, is “low-key how relationships start on Instagram,” Coryatt told me.
While most dating apps ban people under the age of 18 from signing up, that hasn’t stopped teenagers from forming intricate romance rituals on the social-media platforms, such as Instagram, that are now ubiquitous in most of their lives. Coryatt named a few practices for me: Use Instagram to gather information about someone; flirt by exchanging memes; block people who message you the water droplets, eyes, eggplant, or tongue emoji. (“That shows they don’t have pure intentions.”) In a relationship, post about your significant other on MCM (Man Crush Monday) or WCW (Woman Crush Wednesday), both to celebrate your partner and to remind prospective suitors that you’re both taken.
“Social media has completely changed the way teens manage relationships,” says Joris Van Ouytsel, a professor at the University of Antwerp who’s done extensive research on the role of social platforms in the romantic lives of Belgian adolescents. Teenagers’ always elaborate courtship customs have been shaped by the features of today’s apps. For example, to communicate the depth of their interest in a crush on Instagram, Van Ouytsel learned, many teens deployed likes on years-old profile photos (images that would seem practically “prehistoric” to 15-year-olds, he notes). He observed teens spreading the word about their relationships by posting photos of them with their significant other and checking in to locations together. (Being “Facebook official” wasn’t important.)
In some ways, digital dating lives have been a boon to teenagers: It’s easier to learn about a friend’s significant other now than before social media, and to reach out to a crush online, because rejection isn't as hurtful as if it were done in person. But the public nature of some social-media interactions can add new complexities to the dating experience, compared with previous analog eras. “If you're being a creep, someone’s friend will know about it, and their friend will hear about it, and no one wants to be seen as a weirdo,” Coryatt said. For Coryatt, commenting on a crush’s posts was “stressful,” because all their classmates could see the exchange. What was the right thing to say: “This looks super cute? The lighting in this makes your hair pop? Or something less … weird?”
Social media will play a huge role in many teens’ first relationships, shaping the way they interact with their significant others. They’ll have access to their partner’s entire friend list and be able to see whom they interact with online. And platforms like Instagram have created new worries for teenagers looking to date, Van Ouytsel said, that didn’t exist 10 or 15 years ago. “As teens, we can be childish,” Coryatt said. “The whole commenting and liking pictures thing is big. A lot of kids my age get upset at their significant other because they didn’t like their recent post or didn’t post about them for MCM or WCW.”
In some cases, social media can distract from the types of concerns that have always haunted young relationships. Leora Trub, a psychology professor at Pace University who studies social media’s effects on relationships, described to me a textbook scenario: Someone’s ex-partner posts a flirtatious comment to their profile, causing a fight between that person and their current partner. The social-media behavior might only eclipse the core trouble: “It becomes the object of attention in the fight that ensues,” she said, when it likely highlights an existing issue in the relationship, such as infidelity concerns. “Especially with teens, fights tend to stay at that level.”
The teens Trub has worked with, having grown up with social media, have difficulty considering alternatives to socializing. For young people like Coryatt, social media has overtaken other forms of communication as a natural first option. “It’s jarring to ask for someone’s number, because now that’s seen as some kind of personal information,” Coryatt said.
How will social media’s hold on teenagers’ dating lives affect their relationships later in life? Trub and Van Ouytsel say they’ll be looking for answers to that question. At 17 years old, Coryatt has just started to explore these issues, and hasn’t yet gone through the complicated dance of navigating a whole relationship on Instagram. Sliding into the DMs of that crush has required effort enough. Despite the stress, it did produce a happy outcome—offline: “She mentioned a meme I sent in class the next day.”
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