Teen dating

What does the romantic life of today's teen look like? Multi-couple dates, clear codes of conduct, and the freedom to hold off on going all the way

Here is how 14-year-old Catherine started going out with the guy who is now her boyfriend. At recess one day, her best friend yelled over to the unsuspecting boy, “Catherine wants to snog!” Everyone within earshot knew from Harry Potter that “snog” is Brit slang for “kiss.” While Catherine and her friends dissolved into hysterics, the boy didn’t react at all — until two weeks later, when he approached Catherine to ask her out. And here’s how that went:

Boy: “Do you wanna go out?”

Catherine: “OK.”

The two Toronto-area teens have been going out since last April, although rarely on their own. In their group of eight friends, the four boys and four girls are paired off into couples, but prefer to spend their time all together, sitting around and talking at one another’s houses, grabbing something to eat, going to a movie. So why bother having a boyfriend at all? “We just feel better when we’re together,” Catherine explains. “At this age we’re always fighting with our parents, so we need to feel we’re loved.” She’s quick to add that while she and her boyfriend love each other, they’re not in love. “Whoa — we’re only 14!”

This is the new world of teen dating, and it can be almost unrecognizable to many parents. Long gone is the tradition where a boy phones a girl on Tuesday to ask her out for Saturday, picks her up at her house, meets the parents, pays for dinner and a show, and sees her home. “That’s just in the movies,” says Brett, 14, of Aurora, Ont. “What happens in real life is you’ll be hanging out with your immediate circle of friends, including your girlfriend, and you go, ‘What’s everybody doing Friday night?’ You all decide to see a movie and you’ll all get separate drives there. You usually don’t go out one-on-one.”

And there are some other interesting developments in this brave new world, including the fact that teens feel freer to put off sex, and they see love, marriage and kids as best left for the (fairly) distant future. Here’s our look at teen dating in the 21st century.
The gang’s all here

Going out with your significant other with all your mutual friends in tow is such a common phenomenon across the country that academics have started researching it. “We call it group dating, and we believe it can be really healthy and protective,” says Jennifer Connolly, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto who specializes in teen relationships. Connolly, who has two adolescent daughters of her own, says that group dating is growing in popularity everywhere, including China and India. The peer group provides checks and balances, along with feedback about what’s OK and what’s not, so kids are less likely to get out of their depth — especially in terms of conflict, expectations for behaviour and sex.

With traditional one-to-one relationships, Connolly says, things tend to escalate much more quickly, simply because the couple is spending a lot of time alone. Having supportive friends around can exert a powerful moderating influence. But by the same token, a tough, aggressive peer group can have a negative influence, such as tolerating dating violence. “So from a parenting perspective,” says Connolly, who is also the director of the LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence and Conflict Resolution, “you want to know who your kids are friends with.”

Kids like the security of having their friends around. “When you’re going out with someone, it’s much easier to be yourself when your friends are there too,” says Katie, 15, of Carleton Place, Ont. “If you pretended to be somebody else, your friends would go, ‘Whoa, why are you acting so weird?’” Also, there’s no need to pre-arrange that cellphone call to get you out of a date you’re not enjoying. “If I get bored [on a date], my friends keep things interesting,” Katie says.

The downside for parents: You may not even be aware that your child has a boyfriend or girlfriend. Group dating is also a way for kids to circumvent a parental ban on dating.
Becoming a “couple”

Don’t panic, but the experts say “going out” often begins in grade five, with one or two couples in a class. A couple may never see or speak to each other outside of school, although they may well enjoy the new status accorded them by their peers. These types of short-lived pairings — relationships in name only — jump in numbers by grades six and seven, when alcohol increasingly becomes part of many parties. “This ‘liquid courage,’ which is far more common than other drugs, makes kids get over their natural modesty and social awkwardness,” says Kim Martyn, a long-time sexual health educator in Toronto. Parents must acknowledge this reality and address safety issues around the risks of drinking, says Martyn, who’s also the mother of two young-adult daughters. But, she adds reassuringly, many of these youthful relationships, sustained largely by rumour and reputation, will have dissolved within days or weeks.

Regardless, there are still many, many kids who haven’t the slightest interest in going out. Eleven-year-old Charles, a bright, sociable, engaging sixth-grader in the Toronto area, was shocked to hear last spring that a buddy’s school in a nearby town would be hosting a grade-five dance. “I think that’s just ridiculous,” says Charles, who doesn’t feel ready for that kind of intimacy with girls. “I just spent the weekend at my grandparents’ place moving rocks. That’s my idea of fun.”

There’s certainly been an increase in boy-girl parties at younger ages, including mixed sleepovers. This causes parents to worry, and rightly so, as many kids are uncomfortable with or unable to handle the intimacy that comes with slow dancing or mixed-gender pyjama parties. But in terms of friendships between boys and girls, Connolly says that simply having friends of both sexes can be healthy and positive. And for some kids, it may even help to ease the pressure to get involved in one-to-one dating before they’re ready.

Despite texting, email and instant messaging, most relationships still begin face-to-face. “It’s more intellectually stimulating to talk to someone in person or even on the phone,” says Kim, an 18-year-old who lives north of Toronto. “When you just type something, the emotion and the subtleties aren’t there.” All the kids in this article said they’re on the computer far less than they used to be.

Martyn sees another trend: kids, especially girls between ages 13 and 15, flirting around the edges of bisexuality. “Girl-on-girl make-outs are somewhat fashionable, but it’s a bit of a performance thing,” she says. “There’s some kissing, maybe some slow dancing at a party, and a lot of talk, usually in front of friends. They want to be out-rageous, and they know it gets guys’ attention.”

But this behaviour is more a reflection of our culture, drenched as it is in sexual imagery, than of freedom for gay kids to come out. Although people who are gay typically don’t define their sexual identity until their late teens, or 20s, Martyn says that a young person questioning his or her sexual orientation could become very confused seeing such same-sex play-acting among their friends. The good news, though, is that spending time with friends of both sexes could help a gay youth resolve important identity questions over the next several years.

Code of conduct

With so much pushing of the envelope, it may seem that there are no rules around relationships. But there are. “Relationships are very rule-bound, and kids absolutely understand this,” says Connolly. “It’s only as they get older that they feel they can go beyond the rules and become an individual.”

The rules can vary from group to group, but here are some common ones:

• No making out in public. Holding hands or a light kiss is fine, but nothing sloppy or roping. “It’s considered taboo — we don’t need to see that!” says Katie. Catherine was appalled last year, in grade eight, to learn of a couple who got caught making out on school property by a lunch monitor. “There were itty-bitty grade-oners running around!” Catherine says in horror. “It was like, ‘Eww!’ Pretty nasty.”

• Girls can do the asking, but guys have the final say. “It’s not considered weird for a girl to ask a guy out,” Katie says. But 13-year-old Anthony says it’s usually still the guy who makes the first move. When asked why that is, Anthony replies, “The guy’s supposed to be the stronger person, the tough one.” Connolly says: “Girls are fine today to be orchestrators of group dating, but when it comes to announcing ‘We’re a couple,’ the responsibility still falls to the boys.”

• No cheating. If you’re going out with someone, you can’t go out or make out with anyone else until you officially break up with the first person. This applies to boys as well as girls, which means the once-cool image of male “studs” and “players” is now just as scorned as female “sluts.” Brett explains, “If a guy’s going out with a lot of girls, people will look at him and go, ‘You tool, what are you doing?’ It lowers your status.”
How do I love thee?

Catherine was recently stunned to hear that her 12-year-old cousin in Edmonton is in love with her boyfriend. But, Martyn says, “love can be as real for a 12-year-old as for a 30-year-old. We certainly bought it with Romeo and Juliet, and she was only 13!” Martyn says it’s not helpful for parents to dismiss their son’s or daughter’s strong emotional attachment as infatuation, puppy love or a crush.

Connolly agrees: “Of course kids can be in love. They’re capable of having very strong, loving relationships that connect companionship and emotional intimacy with sexuality.” But what these relationships lack is longevity. Connolly says that young adolescent relationships last from a few weeks to a year, with the average being four months. While some are extremely intense, others remain very casual. “Love is a strong word,” says Brett. “Mostly we just say, ‘I like this person.’” But adolescents all understand the distinction between “like” and “like like.”

And despite our sex-saturated culture, sex is usually not a big part of young relationships. A Statistics Canada study published in August 2008 found that only 43 percent of teens aged 15 to 19 reported in 2005 that they’d had sexual intercourse at least once, a drop from 47 percent in 1996/97. Only eight percent reported having sex before age 15, down from the previous 12 percent. And the latest teen pregnancy figures show a steady drop over the past couple of decades, especially among girls aged 15 to 17, according to the latest figures from SIECCAN, the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada. It’s almost counterintuitive, but it appears that the more kids know about sex, the less likely they are to actually have it. “Canadian society has become increasingly accepting of the reality of adolescent sexuality, which has made discussions much more open,” says Alex McKay, SIECCAN’s research coordinator. “Young people feel much more free to seek information, and that has empowered increasing numbers of youth to find they’re not ready for early sexual activity.”

Intimacy in young relationships is often limited to hugging, kissing, holding hands and the comfort of knowing that though you often feel at odds with your parents, your teachers and the world, there’s somebody who likes you just as you are. Catherine says, “It’s nice to have a boyfriend who’s the same age and has the same sense of humour — we’re pretty much exactly the same.” But about a sexual relationship, she says, “We aren’t even close to anything like that.”

Many don’t feel ready for early marriage, either. Kim says that while she loves her boyfriend of two years, she has no plans to get married in her teens, as her own mother did. “A relationship is hard enough to keep together without the whole stressful process of a wedding,” she says. “I’m not even thinking of having kids yet. I need more time to grow.”

Katie says that marriage was something she and her girlfriends fantasized about in elementary school, but now they see it as a possibility in the far-off future, if ever. “A lot of my friends are gay and don’t necessarily expect to be married at all,” Katie says. “I think it would be nice to be married and have children some day — when I’m 35.”
Letting go

Since adolescent relationships are typically brief, breakups are common. Catherine broke up with her first boyfriend by approaching him at school, saying “Here!” and handing him a note that read, “I think we should break up and see other people.” He agreed.

Kids might even prepare for the breakup before they start going out. Brett says, “What happens most of the time is if you’re really good friends and you’re both looking to go forward, you say, ‘If this doesn’t work out, let’s still be friends and forget this ever happened.’” He adds that the typical way to break up is to say, “I liked you better when we were really good friends.”

Breakups between young teens are often mutual and rarely cause a long-lasting broken heart, says Connolly. Most of the time they serve to help kids learn about themselves and how they might want to shape their future relationships.

And after the breakup, there’s no pressure to jump into another relationship. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly OK to not always have a boyfriend or girlfriend. “I’m 15,” says Katie. “I think I’m allowed to be single from time to time!”
Language of love

Not only is the concept of dating antiquated, but the very word “date” is, well, dated. Here’s a glossary of the latest lingo:

Going out Publicly acknowledging that you like someone and he or she likes you. The two of you don’t have to technically go out at all, but you’ll likely sit together at lunch, walk home together or spend a little more time texting or talking. All your friends will know that the two of you are going out.

Making out Also previously known as necking, petting, fooling around or getting to first (or second) base. (All these expressions are eye-rollingly archaic to kids today.)

Hooking up This gets tricky. It means physical intimacy between two people who normally aren’t going out, but it can cover everything from kissing to sex. Explains 15-year-old Katie, “In grade nine it means kissing, in grade 10 it means something more intense, and in grades 11 and 12 it can mean sexual relations or just holding hands. If I hear that two people hooked up, usually I have to ask, ‘In what way exactly did they hook up?’”

PDAs Public displays of affection.

Friends with benefits Two people who meet solely for casual sex. Also called sex buddies (and other more graphic terms). This arrangement is rare among younger teens.

Ready or not?
When is your child old enough to go on one-to-one dates? Age 12, said a surprising 27 percent of you, in a recent poll on Todaysparent.com. The majority of respondents (52 percent) took a more traditional view, saying kids should wait until they’re 16 or older.

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